Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve decided that American Gods’ opening paragraph is one of the best I’ve ever read. Behold:

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

What I love about it is its misdirection. Up until the last few words you have a pretty stereotypical impression of this Shadow character: a heartless, dangerous inmate. And then with the tender detail about his wife, that image gets upended. We soon learn that his wife calls him “Puppy” and that the first thing Shadow wants to do once he gets out of prison is take a bath — “[a] real, long, serious soak, in a tub with bubbles in it.” These snippets are emblematic of the rest of the novel, from its characters and plot to its themes. Laced with magic and deception, American Gods thrives on misdirection at every level.

We pick up the story as Shadow gets released from prison. Unfortunately, the bubble bath will have to wait. Shadow learns that his wife and best friend have been killed in a car accident — I’m not telling you anything that’s not on the back cover, by the way — and the plan for the rest of his life goes up in smoke.

On Shadow’s flight home, a character who personifies shadiness happens to be seated next to Shadow. He calls himself Mr. Wednesday. He wears a black Rolex and one of his eyes is “a darker gray than the other.” He also knows a lot about Shadow, like his name, and what happened to his wife, Laura, and that Shadow was counting on a job from his best friend, who also died in the car accident. Wednesday is in need of a bodyguard, and, grinning “like a fox eating shit from a barbed wire fence,” he offers Shadow the position.

Shadow reluctantly agrees, but not before learning who Mr. Wednesday really is: Odin, the Norse god of creation. (His nickname comes from the fact that the day of the week is named after him.) Shadow soon finds himself involved in a war that no one saw coming — a war between the old gods and the new.

Gaiman’s cast of “old gods” includes gods from all over the world. There’s Odin, of course, along with a number of others from Norse mythology. There’s also Anansi from African folklore and Bilquis, the Bible’s Queen of Sheba, and many, many more. Gaiman handles them all brilliantly, but what’s really genius is how he gives them a back story. The novel’s epigraph poses the question of “what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands”; Gaiman takes this question and runs with it. His answer is that these “demonic beings” don’t just appear on American soil. They migrate here, carried from other continents in the minds of their believers.

These days, life ain’t easy for the old gods. They face stiff competition in the “new gods” — media and technology and drugs. People no longer believe in the old gods, so they no longer make sacrifices to them, so the old gods are fading away. The old gods must take a stand against the new gods or face elimination. We follow along as Wednesday and Shadow round up the troops in preparation for battle.

Not all of the old gods are so gung-ho on going to war, so Wednesday sets out to convince his peers of the situation’s urgency. Occasionally some palms must be greased. Wednesday shows his true colors when he and Shadow rob a bank to get some bribing money. Make no mistake: Wednesday is an excellent con artist, and proud of it. He loves the crooked trade, much like Shadow loves the coin tricks he learned in prison. One of the duo’s most entertaining conversations is about duping people, in which Wednesday philosophizes on the art of grifting:

“Some things may change,” said Wednesday, abruptly. “People, however… people stay the same. Some grifts last forever, others are swallowed soon enough by time and by the world. My favorite grift of all is no longer practical. Still, a surprising number of grifts are timeless. The Spanish Prisoner, the Pigeon Drop, the Fawney Rig (that’s the Pigeon Drop but with a gold ring instead of a wallet), the Fiddle Game…”

These are all real cons, by the way. If you’re a sucker for grifter lingo like I am — I get a big grin whenever Rusty and Danny talk shop in the Ocean’s movies — then you’ll love the way Gaiman infuses this culture into the story. Behind every plot point is a great con. And behind every con, there’s misdirection.

Shadow knows all about misdirection from his coin tricks. During some down time, he teaches a kid how to vanish a coin:

After several attempts the boy mastered the move. “Now you know half of it,” said Shadow. “Because the moves are only half of it. The other half is this: put your attention on the place where the coin ought to be. Look at the place it’s meant to be. Follow it with your eyes. If you act like it’s in your right hand, no one will even look at your left hand, no matter how clumsy you are.”

Here we can enjoy a bit of irony. By the story’s end, Shadow will have spent far too much time looking at the wrong place.

But why do people look in the wrong place? Easy: Because they believe. Belief makes us susceptible to the kind of grifting that Wednesday lives for. Belief is at the center of the con. In American Gods, sacrifices keep the gods alive, and people only make sacrifices to the gods if they believe in them. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the gods in this novel are fantastic con artists.

This is all in opposition to modern society’s views, of course. We tend to think of belief as good, almost sacred — and certainly not as fuel for con artists (never!). Gaiman gives belief a sinister twist by turning it into a currency, but he stops short of telling us whether it’s good, bad, or both. One thing’s for certain, though: the most interesting — and dangerous — things happen when characters believe.

Shadow learns this early on. After getting released from prison but before meeting Wednesday, he falls asleep and has a crazy dream:

Shadow was in a dark place, and the thing staring at him wore a buffalo’s head, rank and furry with huge wet eyes. Its body was a man’s body, oiled and slick.
“Changes are coming,” said the buffalo without moving its lips. “There are certain decisions that will have to be made. […] Believe,” said the rumbling voice. “If you are to survive, you must believe.”
“Believe what?” asked Shadow. “What should I believe?”
Everything,” roared the buffalo man.

The more Shadow believes, the further he descends into a world he’s never imagined, one that will have him feeling more alive — and more dead — than he’s ever felt. In this story, belief is the key to adventure and the key to truth. Once Shadow starts believing, he begins to discover things about himself and the state of the world that earlier would have seemed, well, incredible.

Shadow’s journey will require him to believe everything, and American Gods will ask the same of its reader. It’s not as difficult as it may seem. I read the extended version, the Author’s Preferred Text, which, at 750 pages, is plenty long to feel immersive and provide opportunities for us to catch our breath. It unravels slowly and without hyperbole, presenting fantastic events as if they were normal. Like a dream, the text seems totally unaware of its own absurdness.

It is therefore extremely jarring when, just before the book’s climax — the war between the old gods and the new — the narrator addresses the reader directly:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. […] Such things could not occur in this day and age. Never a word of it is literally true, although it all happened, and the next thing that happened, happened like this:

We’ve been happily asleep in our dream state for 642 pages, dear narrator. Why wake us up now?

This is a confusing move. It’s always weird when the narrator speaks in the second person, but it’s especially weird when she tells us what to believe — and then contradicts herself! Gaiman may be borrowing this trick from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which famously begins, “All this happened, more or less.” The effect is hard to pin down, but I view it as a challenge to the reader: Can you believe what’s about to happen?

If we’re having trouble believing, we can look to Samantha Black Crow for inspiration. Sam is a hitchhiking college student whom Shadow picks up early in the story. Later, when Shadow wants to tell Sam about the war between gods, he cautions her that she won’t believe him. Her response is excellent:

“I […] can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe. […] I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that are not true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. […] I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. […]”

American Gods is one long con. At its heart are misdirection and deception. It will have us looking in the wrong place and thinking the wrong things from the beginning — from its wonderful first paragraph — until the grand reveal at the end. It’s like what Shadow told the boy when he was teaching him a coin trick: “If you act like it’s in your right hand, no one will even look at your left hand, no matter how clumsy you are.” Gaiman’s storytelling is the furthest thing from clumsy — extremely well researched, superbly clever, and endlessly fun — so American Gods is a con worth falling for. You’d better believe it.