What would Zeus be if instead of sitting atop Mount Olympus with his lightning bolt he struggled to keep his Greek restaurant at the base of Mount Washington afloat? What would Isis be if she walked the banks of the Mississippi instead of the banks of the Nile? They would be right at home among the other struggling American Gods of Neil Gaiman’s novel, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. An interesting interpretation of some recognizable deities from a variety of pantheons, Gaiman’s American Gods juggles several plotlines without losing the reader’s interest though it does at times stretch the reader’s ability to organize and remember the influx of information.
The novel focuses mostly on its protagonist, Shadow, who is released from prison a few days early upon the tragic death of his wife, Laura. With Laura dead, he has nothing left to hold him to his former home so when a mysterious man calling himself Wednesday hires him as a sort of bodyguard, Shadow shrugs his shoulders and goes. It does not take long for Shadow to see behind the curtain as Wednesday brings him to a number of the older, floundering gods seeking their assistance for an unavoidable battle that’s brewing with the younger gods of the current technologically advanced society and culture.
There are side stories involving Shadow’s dead-but-still-around wife and the mysterious disappearances of children in the small town where he lives in hiding under an assumed name between gigs for Wednesday. Diverging completely from the main story lines are interludes giving the background of some of the gods and/or details of their existences in America today. Some of these deities pop up again as Wednesday and Shadow plead their case. They provide a lot of background for Gaiman’s whole concept of how these gods came to the country and what they do in order to exist as well as functioning as pauses from the main storylines.
American Gods has so many elements, many of them supernatural, it is hard to appropriately describe any of them. The same goes for the many-faceted characters. The gods have as many sides to their personalities as the people who have believed in them over the years (or fed their needs when straightforward belief failed to be enough). Perhaps the most unexpectedly engaging character is that of Shadow’s dead-but-still-around wife, Laura.
Based on the information about her that Shadow gives before the reader is introduced to her, dying turned off any filters she had for her speech and behavior. Her honesty is brutal and refreshing, especially for the reader who is probably not as trusting as Shadow proves to be. Laura’s observation that as much as she loved Shadow, she never felt that he was really alive, proves to be one of the biggest influences on his character as the story progresses.
The magic of American Gods lies not in it’s clever and surprising plots, but in the way it forces the reader to examine the role of the divine through history and its reflection of us, particularly in the present. The gods of the novel are at the mercy of the people, their tastes, their whims, and their values. Desperate gods are just as dangerous as desperate humans though they can prove to be just as susceptible too.