Did gods create the people of Earth to believe in them? Or did the people of Earth create gods by believing in them?
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman plays with the latter concept. Over the centuries, newcomers to America, from Egyptians to Vikings, brought over beliefs that manifested as physical aspects of their old-world gods, such as Anubis and Loki. American soil is bad for gods, however, and the old gods were eventually forgotten and replaced by the new gods of TV, credit cards, websites, and so on, all of which have their own corporeal forms, and all of which will soon be replaced in turn.
It’s a fun premise, informed by Gaiman’s personal immigration experience (he came to the U.S. from England) and subsequent acculturation. In the book, he investigates the mythological consequences of this process by following Shadow, a man released from prison a few days early after his wife dies in a car crash. Shadow is quickly recruited by Odin, the leader of the old gods in America, to help rally his brethren for a war with the new gods.
Structurally, American Gods’ wandering style reminded me of Stephen King. There’s no clear goal for Shadow at the beginning, or a specific antagonist. Instead, we follow Shadow about the U.S., frequently falling into travel interludes that serve more to characterize small-town America than to advance the story. Gaiman also occasionally interrupts the plot, such as it is, with flashbacks of ancient immigrants coming to America and carrying their gods with them.
And yet, by and large, it works, because Gaiman is a gifted writer, and he makes Shadow a protagonist worth rooting for. (Interestingly, though, Gaiman said he couldn’t write a scene he liked involving Shadow and Jesus; he includes one of the attempts in the appendix to the audio book for the 10-year anniversary edition—an excellent, full-cast production.)
Not everyone sees faith the same way as Gaiman, of course: near the end of the novel, he steps out of his narration to define religions as merely “places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” But regardless of your vantage, American Gods is worth a read if you like compelling entertainment threaded with intriguing philosophical commentary.
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