Off! the Shelf - 'American Gods'

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Justin Colburn and Keayn Dunya

"Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she's been killed in a terrible accident. Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible. He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same..."

-- From American Gods


Television is a God and there is an altar to it in nearly every home in America. Most homes have at least two. Every night when people come home they sacrifice to Television. Most people sacrifice time, some sacrifice their relationships, their jobs, others sacrifice their health. Over time we have sacrificed so much to these false idols that they have become the new Gods. TV, money, sports, the internet, cancer; these are the things we have ritualistically sacrificed pieces of ourselves to over the years until they were born as Gods. Unconsciously we have been living a polytheistic lifestyle, going to church on Sunday morning only to come home and sacrifice a cold beer and plate of hot wings to the God of Football that afternoon. Our ancestors brought the old Gods to this country with them when they came to this land, but these new Gods are the product of our modern society, we created them, and America isn't big enough for both generations of Gods to coexist. This conflict was, to me, one of the more interesting points of focus in Neil Gaiman's novel, American Gods.

The story focuses on an ex-convict named Shadow who is offered a job by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. As the story progresses Shadow is approached by both sides of the upcoming war between the Gods and must decide where his loyalties stand. The story takes place throughout the continental United States, including a brief stop in Cairo Illinois to visit some former Egyptian Gods, and includes mythology and folklore from across the world.

In American Gods Gaiman makes elements of everyday life seem extraordinary, while bizarre rarities seem dull and ordinary. His pacing is very smooth and he is notorious for hiding things just beneath the surface. American Gods is a book unlike any other I have read before, it spans thousands of years and brings elements from cultures throughout. If you have an interest in mythology and/or folklore and are looking for something to provoke your thoughts and make you look at things differently, I think American Gods would suit you well.


A storm was coming, one like nothing ever known. Shadow has spent the last three years in prison, keeping his head down and doing his time. 'He was no longer scared of what tomorrow would bring because yesterday had brought it.' All he wanted was to get back to his loving wife and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life. Days before his scheduled release, he learned that his wife has been killed in an accident and his world becomes a colder place. On the plane ride home, Shadow meets a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday offers Shadow a job. After some convincing, Shadow reluctantly accepts. Shadow learns that working for the enigmatic Wednesday is not without its price, and Shadow has a role to play in Wednesday's mysterious schemes that will be far more dangerous than anything he could have ever imagined. Entangled in a world of secrets, he embarks on a wild road trip and encounters various people, all of whom seem to know more about Shadow and what is going on than he does. Shadow will learn that the past does not die. Everyone, including his late wife, had secrets, and those secrets have untold consequences.

The basic premise of American Gods is that of belief. Belief is what keeps the older gods around. It's belief in the new god's power that gives them rise. What difference is there between the old worshipers of RA versus the new worshipers of the Internet? The sacrifices are different but still there. Instead of blood and our harvests to the gods of old, we sacrifice our time and our energy to the new gods. The problem is that even when we stop believing in those gods, they don't just fade away. Every person that came to America brought their old beliefs with them. These beliefs gave rise to versions of that god that exist in America, tied to it as much as to its people. America may not be big enough for all the gods to coexist. The line is drawn between the old and the new.

There are few writers that I admire as much as Neil Gaiman. His writings can be subtle yet powerful and moving at the same time. Ask any reader of his books and they will be sure to tell you of the vividness that goes into Gaiman's prose. A prolific writer who has many books, comics and scripts to his credit, Gaiman has written everything from Coraline, a children's book, to the widely popular Sandman series of comics, to the dark and mysterious Neverwhere. Gaiman has won a considerable number of awards through his career and American Gods is no exception. It has won the Bram Stoker Award and the Hugo Award.

American Gods is a fascinating read. It explores concepts that are very interesting and thought provoking. It filters through the mythology and legends of various cultures and peoples. It also underlines that America is a melting pot. Everyone has a different culture and beliefs that extend into the lives of others. The things we create do go away or cease to exist just because we forget. In the annuals of time the only thing undisputed about America is the land. American Gods brings you back to that fact. We are all trying to make the best of what we have, with or without a little help from our God.

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