American Gods
Neil Gaiman
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Buy *American Gods* online American Gods
Neil Gaiman
592 pages
September 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman series of Vertigo comics as well as several traditional print novels (Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, Neverwhere), crafts a matter-of-factly haunting novel of gods and monsters in the pages of his latest book. As much a journey of one man's self-discovery as it is an epic of lapsed belief and final conflict, American Gods juxtaposes ordinary reality and the Backstage, where gods who've been walking city streets in the guise of men reveal their true selves and pursue their personal divine agendas. Gaiman's prose has the creep-factor of early Stephen King and the unsentimental thoughtfulness of, well, Gaiman's own Sandman.

A man named Shadow is serving the last days of a three-year assault conviction, relieved that he will soon be rejoining his beloved wife and their interrupted life. Just before his release, Shadow is summoned to the warden's office, and his world drops out from beneath him when he is told that his wife and best friend are dead, killed in an automobile accident. Hollowed out, devastated, a numb Shadow makes his way home, arriving just in time for Laura's funeral. When his best friend's widow reveals that her husband and Shadow's wife carried on an extended affair during Shadow's prison time, the big man is cast adrift. With nothing tethering him to anything or anywhere, he accepts employment by a slick old drifter and grifter named Wednesday.

Beginning with a visit from his wife's reanimated corpse, Shadow's world begins to take on a distinctly skewed Twilight Zone cast. Shadow -- whose farthest stretch into magic until now has been learning a few good coin tricks -- learns that Wednesday is the American incarnation of the Norse god Odin, the mighty All-Father reduced to a con artist. As they travel across the U.S., Wednesday reveals his grand plan: to gather together all the transplanted and forgotten old deities and challenge the new gods -- of technology, of television, of the changed world -- to an apocalyptic battle royale for supremacy.

Gaiman pays tribute to the distinctively kitschy soul of America: the fundamental self-protectiveness of the small town, the weird universal appeal of the roadside attraction, the grasping for a belief in something greater than ourselves. American Gods resembles a cross between "The Sting" and a Passion play, corrupting our deepest spiritual longings with the desire to be in on the con. Gaiman, a transplanted Briton, is an outsider looking in here, and as such is able to cut to the heart of our New World angst in an ancient land.

© 2001 by Sharon Schulz-Elsing for Curled Up With a Good Book

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