Sunday, April 15, 2007

Modern Ragnarok

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books , LLC, 2001

Having spent a great deal of my college time reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics, I was surprised at how disinterested I was in his novel writing career. Post-college, my interest in serial comics had waned considerably; the three masters of the form (Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and the criminally underrated Jamie Delano) having departed, why should I stick around? And having cut that tie, the only real career I kept up with was Alan Moore’s — sporadic enough that it didn’t require constant vigilance.

Maybe I’d just grown tired of the supernatural genre entirely; maybe comics were just the last gasp of my morbid childhood, their reputation as infantile allowing me to revel in the conflicted allegiances DC’s adult-themed material provided. Whatever it was, Neil Gaiman’s move to novel writing reminded me too much of my wiled away youth with nose pressed deep between the pages of Clive Barker or Ramsey Campbell. Well, what I’ve been missing was worth keeping up with, that much is certain.

I should have known better. One of the constant pleasures Gaiman’s writing engendered was the sense of playfulness in his prose and especially in his plotting; the adrenaline rush that spurred ever faster page turning came from how quickly and how unforgivingly that playfulness would show its claws. Very few writers can so well evoke not only childhood’s seeming sense of the magical, but the dark side of those fantasies and daydreams. Walking home at dusk, I used to play a game with the cars that drove down my street: I had to make it to a certain tree and hide behind its trunk before the car made it to the tree or else. Or else what? Gaiman remembers games like that — and he knows the answer to that question. Or else what?

Which is not to say that his novel writing is for children, nor were his comics. He just remembers how to use those same primitive terrors and how to play with them. He is also a master of the sucker punch line as we learn early on in his 2001 novel, American Gods. Fresh out of prison a couple days early to attend his wife Laura’s funeral (she died in a car crash), our hero Shadow arrives to see his best friend’s widow Audrey spit in the face of his wife’s corpse lying in the casket.

Later, when Shadow catches up with Audrey and asks her about it, he is quite frankly told, “Your wife died with my husband’s cock in her mouth.” Well, then. That’s the kind of line that brings a scene to a crashing close, but fear not, Gentle Reader, his wife’s ghost will arrive on time later in the book to explain to him exactly how that came about. As far as ghosts go, Laura makes one of the more interesting ones. A refusenik when it comes to passing on, she makes herself useful to Shadow as a kind of penance, turning up at various points along his road trip to get him out of scrapes or point the right direction.

Because with a title like American Gods, because when the novel is about America, you know there’s going to be a road trip in there somewhere. There just has to be. The vast size of America lends itself to travel picaresques, and Gaiman is game to give it a whirl. Shadow, at odd ends now that the only thing he had waiting for him after prison is gone, lurches about momentarily before being taken under the wing of a middle aged to elderly man named Mr. Wednesday. Becoming his new employer, Wednesday hires Shadow to act as his bodyguard as they begin their cross country journey.

The name alone should give you a tip off as to who this really is. And if you’re familiar with comparative mythology, a number of names that crop up will seem familiar. Yet upon meeting these characters, like Shadow, you’d be hard-pressed to guess these were gods. Because the manifestations of gods in America, the old gods of world mythologies, having been carried here by believers who came and stranded them, are down on their luck. They have poor health, are unrecognized, barely worshipped, live in poverty, and they’re under fire. As new gods crop up in America all the time, the old must make way for the new gods of fashion, gods of technology, gods of commerce.

So Wednesday takes Shadow on the trip across America, trying to engage the various retired gods in his battle against the new generation. Along the way, they are joined by some of these once popular and powerful deities. One such Slavic god, Czernobog, having come to America, got a job in a meat packing plant as a stunner, wielding his mighty hammer now on cows’ brains. We also meet Mr. Nancy, the trickster spider god from Africa and the Caribbean, another middle aged fellow who will return for the considerably more comic follow-up Anansi Boys.

Shadow travels along with Wednesday and this admittedly ragged crew as they seek out other gods and goddesses hidden among the countryside. Little by little, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow confide in each other, confess to each other, develop a shambling and shaggy kind of relationship. Shadow never fully trusts Wednesday (and he’s right not to), watching all the time how the old god cheats people out of a stray dollar here and there, how he seduces comely young maidens from town to town. Shadow is finally twigged to their identities as gods naturally enough, as they all ride a magical carousel on their way to a meeting of all the old gods.

Gaiman keeps this tale lively and interesting, Wednesday at points abandoning Shadow whereupon he has adventures of his own including run-ins with the unsettling new gods. They are, for the most parts, a discomfiting lot. A conspiracy theory god manifested as men in black who interrogate other characters while claiming to be from some non-specific government agency was a nice twist. The god Television tries to seduce Shadow in his various hotel rooms, at one point speaking to him through Lucy Ricardo and offering to show him “Lucy’s tits.”

Interspersed among the modern plot line Gaiman brings us how the old gods made it to America, replete with tales of pre-Columbian America Viking visits along with the entirety of their fun mythos, Cornish indentured servants who brought their banshees and their boogeys, Middle eastern settlers accompanied by their ifrit (now driving a taxi, one of them), and of course the Irish.

Gaiman’s novel is a big delightful five hundred pages, twisting the plot in ways you do and don’t anticipate. At times it feels like there are certain elements you see the shape of coming a long way off. Those serve as set ups for the sneaky kidney punches you don’t anticipate. Gaiman’s writing presents itself so simply that it’s sometimes easy to forget how effortless he makes it look and it’s just as easy to take his prose style for granted, consider him light reading. What’s a rare treat in his novels is just how packed with ideas they are, how many full plots he just throws away as side notes and back story and anecdotes. American Gods is completely in that tradition, and from it Gaiman could easily mine another fifty novels. That’s a powerful mythology right there.

I have to say that I did things backwards and listened to Anansi Boys first and completely fell in love with Lenny Henry’s amazingly funny and rollicking reading/performance of the book. To come to this novel, I was actually let down at first to find good old George Guidall behind the mic. To be sure, Henry’s rich black tones and deftness with Caribbean patois and dialect are a perfect match for the story of an African god’s American son. While it wouldn’t be a perfect match for character here — and while one worries about Guidall attempting the faintest of accents for Mr. Nancy — Henry’s spirited performance wouldn’t have been out of place either. Had I done things in the right order, I doubt it would have come to my notice, but as it fell out, a slight disappointment attended the reading, through no fault of Mr. Guidall who acquitted himself admirably.

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