What first captivated me about this book were the killer opening paragraphs. I mean what a way to start off a book! At the onset, we get a glimpse of the innermost thoughts of the main character, Shadow. My favorite quote from that beginning is:
“The best thing–in Shadow’s opinion, perhaps the only good thing–about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he’d plunged as low as he could plunge and he’d hit bottom. He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.”
That start was just so effective for me. Shadow’s voice in those lines is powerful and drove me to what to know more about his story, what had landed him in prison and what he was going to do next in his new life since it seemed that he had gained wisdom about his crime and wanted to redeem himself for it. However, despite having such a great start and a compelling character, the book progressed incredibly slow for me. This is not to say that a lot of things don’t happen until we learn what the conflict of the book is, because trust me, a lot of weird happens along the way. In fact, I really could have lived the rest of my life in peace without the image of a man being swallowed up by a vagina, but there is no erasing that from my now damaged psyche…so thanks for that Gaiman. On that note, there’s content advisory for you, that particular scene happens very early on and is definitely the worst of them, the rest of the weirdness/crazy is totally mild, and by that, I guess I mean mild in comparison.
Now, what drives me a little bit bonkers about a book is when it progresses agonizingly slowly. It took me about a week to finish this book, which is not normal for me. I kept finding reasons to leave the story and only came back to it because I was determined to finish it. What I think really dragged me out of the story, and made me feel like it took forever to get to the reveal of the conflict were the little “Coming to America” stories scattered throughout the novel. To Gaiman’s immense credit, obviously, he is a fantastic writer. I mean, come on, this guy sort of sets the precedent for prose and description. You may think my admiration for his writing seems contradictory to my rating for the book; however, I obviously disagree. I find it is one thing entirely to appreciate style and prose and another thing entirely to appreciate how an author has used those tools to shape a story. While Gaiman is good about telling a story within a story, (the “Coming to America vignettes) I would inevitably still find myself asking at the end of them, “Okay, but what was the point?” It isn’t until much later, or at least for me, that I had the “aha” moment and realized how they all pieced in. So, if you have the patience comparable to that of a mother of ten and the iron will of a college student who needs to stay awake during a Philosophy of Ethics class, then I promise that all the little hints and clues scattered throughout the novel will come together. But beware, you best be paying attention.
As much as I liked Shadow, his character never asked enough questions for me, which is fine considering this attitude goes in line with his backstory but still, I found it a little irritating at times. It isn’t until page 139 that he starts to really question what is and isn’t real after we are let in on the central conflict of the story, which at this point it feels like it has taken ages to get to. Regardless of that, Shadow has a very profound moment and there is a quote that I just love from his realization.
“All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses shows us; and we must walk that road to the end.” (139)
Some good stuff right there.
After we know what the “big deal” is, we are pulled along for several chapters in more “Coming to America” stories, “Interludes” and some changes in POVs where we follow a character Shadow has met previously or is bound to meet. Everything for a while feels disjointed and unlikely to ever piece together as you continue to pull yourself through the pages, dragging along the mud on your belly aching for the end. But, this is the kicker and completely mind boggling to me, once you trudge through it all, suffering through bouts of confusion and then finally running victory laps as you have undoubtedly begun to connect some dots, you come to the realization that, it ALL fits together! It’s truly incredible.
As a writer, I simply cannot fathom the amount of planning that this sort of story involves because there are so many dimensions to cover and a lot of the time I feel like you have to fully trust that the reader will put their faith in you (the writer) to tell the damn story. And Gaiman does, he totally does. He didn’t do it the way I would have liked him to do it, but I can appreciate the work for what it is and for the fact that there are a few quotes that really stuck out to me. For example, a really minor character, Sam Black Crow, who played almost no part in the book at all, has this really interesting belief system and her monologue is just filled with passion and voice.
“I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to have margaritas with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive….I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there is nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” (394-395)
Wrapping it Up
“American Gods” wasn’t my favorite read ever, the conclusion was not my favorite either, some of the characters did fall a bit flat, but I tell you what, Gaiman certainly told an interesting story. In the end, I felt mildly satisfied by the story, mostly because I wished it had been paced differently and because I wished that the climax hadn’t been so, well, anti-climatic. All of that aside, none of it has dissuaded me from reading Gaiman again. Because, truth be told, I would absolutely read this author again, he is a brilliant writer, and his mastery over the English language makes me green with envy. As a result, I am putting “Stardust” on my To Be Read List, because lets be honest, the movie was just lovely and from my understanding it’s also written very differently than “American Gods” was.
“American Gods” was good. It isn’t a book that I’ll likely read again, but I think a patient reader would enjoy it.
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre(s): Fantasy, Urban Paranormal