It used to be this world was a great place to be a God in; why only a few thousand years ago the heavens and earth were filled to bursting with all sorts of deities, spirits, demons, and things that go bump in the night. Put together any group of humans larger then a family unit and they were bound to have found someone who they counted on for guidance and arbitrary justice.
Things have changed in the past millennia; with the rise of monotheism and larger concentrations of humanity in single places individual Gods have fallen out of favour. If you're no longer in need of someone to guarantee a bountiful crop, or to provide aid to hunting parties it's pretty hard justifying the worship of the one who provided you with that assistance.
It must be bad enough as a deity having your raison d'être pulled out from under your feet, but compared to what's happened to some of your fellow travellers, you should be counting yourself lucky. Think of all those Gods who were uprooted by their adherents and taken to a new world only to be gradually forgotten about or dismissed as inadequate for the demands of their new lives.
One day it's all sacrifices and offerings, the next it’s the cold shoulder and you're left dumpster diving in order to survive. Who'd have thought the name that once caused the heavens themselves to tremble with their passage are reduced to begging for crumbs of belief and a snatch or two of prayer.
What must be even worse is seeing what has relegated them to the back of the bus. Modern man has taken to worshiping "things" or the means that enable him to accumulate things. Televisions, personal computers, cell phones, all have their own personifications making an appearance in the pantheon now.
Such is the situation in the world you enter when you wander the pages of Neil Gaiman's American Gods published by Harper Perennial. (Just a quick note of thanks to HarperCollins Canada for supplying me with the books to review for this spotlight feature on Neil Gaiman at Blogcritics and where ever else these reviews are appearing) Immigrants and travellers to North America hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years in the past brought their deities with them. By carrying out their rituals of worship and carrying the names in their hearts they gave life to their Gods on this foreign soil.
From the blood thirsty warrior Gods of the Norseman to the spirits of the jungle of Africa they have all been left stranded without believers waiting for the inevitable ending when the last heart ceases to believe. For now they exist in various states of decrepitude, some better off than others, but mainly old people well past retirement age awaiting the end.
Like the majority of people Shadow is completely unaware of any of this (there's a paradox here waiting to be posed: if mortal man was aware of the fact that his ancient Gods were fading into oblivion, wouldn't that awareness be sufficient belief to prevent their fading) and given his circumstances he could easily be forgiven for not having any faith at all. He's just about finished a three-year stretch in prison and is eagerly awaiting his reunion with his wife. A good friend has even held his job for him so that he won't even have to worry about the black mark of "convict" on his resume.
Two days before his release he's called down to see the Warden and although prison and paranoia are close companions the news he's given is even worse than he could have imagined. His wife and best friend were killed in a car accident the previous night. In one stroke the future he had planned upon release is torn away and he is left bereft of anything resembling plans. (That they were found in a compromising position is just a bonus- the cherry on top so to speak of you worst case scenario for getting out of prison)
The first time Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday is on his flight home from prison. Due to an overbooking he was seated in first class where the weird old man who somehow knew so much about him offered him a job. The man is so persistent that when the plane is forced to land due to inclement weather, instead of waiting for it to clear Shadow rents a vehicle to complete the trip by car.
But those whom the gods have selected, or however the saying goes, don't find it that easy to give them the slip. So it goes for Shadow, for who should be waiting for him at the diner he stops at for lunch but Mr. Wednesday (Woden's Day, Votan, Odin, all father of the Norse Gods) It's over lunch that Shadow first learns about the war that's in the offing between the Gods of the Old World and the Gods of New World. How even though the old ones are dying out the new ones are impatient and can't wait to shuffle them off this immortal coil.
As Mr. Wednesday explains it to Shadow the problem is that the New Gods feel threatened because they are afraid of being replaced and going out of fashion like the old ones are doing. They are the product of people's ever changing desires like the old Gods, but they like the things they represent come with built in obsoleteness. When anyone is scared, be they Gods or mortals, they look for a target they can lash out at, so they feel like they are accomplishing something.
In American Gods Mr. Gaiman show his deft touch of blending the fantastical and the mundane so that although a great number of the characters in the book are either Gods, spirits, or some other form of magical being the story always stays firmly rooted in the plausible. What else are the old Gods going to be like other than how they are depicted in this book?
Can you see any of them going quietly into a retirement home playing checkers and doing low impact aerobics until the end of time? No they are going to be out in the world making use of their understanding of human nature (running confidence games, doing a little fortune telling), or their natural abilities ( The Egyptian Gods of the underworld Thoth the Ibis, Anubus The Jackal, and Baast the Cat run a funeral parlour) to survive and blend into the world around them.
If you have any familiarity with ancient civilizations and their religions, it will be fun (at least it was for me) to try and figure out who everybody is. Mr. Gaiman has done his research and has included plenty of little clues as to who is who, and has developed their human selves from their Godly characteristics so as to accentuate who they are. What I found especially gratifying was the fact that he didn't attempt to make any concessions for their characters to make them more palatable for a modern audience.
It all of a sudden becomes harder to be sympathetic towards a character that demands human sacrifice as his or her due. Are you still ready to support the so called good guys in the war of the Gods, the one whose side Shadow is on, even when some of them have no problem devouring human beings and think nothing wrong with a throat being slit in their name?
But no matter what character flaws any of these deities might have, they are at least an extension of ourselves and seem far more real and earthy than the Goddess Media who talks like a Madison Avenue representative. Given the choice I know who I'd worship any day of the week.
As in most books by Neil Gaiman American Gods is wonderfully written with moments of transcendent splendour and glimpses into the darker side of human nature. But unlike so many writers today who seem to take great pleasure in only depicting the dark and slithery parts of our mind he maintains a balance that shows us although horror and violence exist so do hope and beauty.
One of things that I found interesting about this book is that he changed his style of writing with his change of locale. Other books I have read by him have all been set in England and there has been a certain tone to them, a way of putting words together on the page that was decidedly English. Here he has changed that so it feels like a book written by a North American.
This may not sound like much, but it is almost as hard for an author to write in another culture's voice as is it is for an actor to assume an accent and make it sound authentic, not an imitation. Mr. Gaiman manages the job so well that if you didn't know you'd think an American had written the book.
That may not sound like much of a big deal, but in order for this book to work it was essential for it to sound as authentic as possible because the location is such a key element in the book. God's are a reflection of the people they are worshipped by, and in the case of the aged and almost forgotten ones whose grip on survival is so tenuous, they no longer reflect the desires and manners of those who brought them here.
Gaiman's ability to accurately portray the people and expressions of America has to be spot on so that the differences are thrown into sharp relief. Anything less would have detracted from the story made it far more difficult for the reader to be drawn into the story.
Neil Gaiman is an author with a unique perception on the world that surrounds us, and even when he travels down paths that are familiar he is able to show us things in a manner we may not have thought of before. In American Gods he examines the way in which we believe and poses questions about belief that may cause some people disquiet. Belief is a very powerful weapon that can be exploited and used against those who are most devout, but it can also provide solace and comfort in times of need.
Perhaps it's not so important what you believe in, but more important that you believe at all. In American Gods we see how strong the power of belief can be. Without it Gods become just another collection of old immigrants bemoaning their lost opportunities but with it they are omnipotent. Kind of makes you wonder who needs who more doesn't it?
(Originally posted October 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.