Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Second Act Full of Tricks

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, Read by Lenny Henry, BBC Audiobooks America, 2005

Approaching this book as I did, without previously meeting the character of Mr Nancy from American Gods, I didn’t immediately recognize the trickster god in human form. This mistaken identity is rather quickly cleared up through our introduction to his son, Fat Charlie Nancy. Fat Charlie, as he is called, is an American living in Britain, the island nation far enough away from his jokey pater familias as he could manage. He first relates to us that when he was a child, his father told him that President’s Day was a great national holiday in America and those children who dressed up as their favorite president would get a free huge bag of candy at school. “He drove me to school himself that day,” he tells his fiancée in relating that story. We likewise learn that Fat Charlie is, in fact, a nickname given to him by his father, for whom giving nicknames is a skill that carries with it the sting of permanence.

Quickly on this cruel introduction, we meet the man himself. Fat Charlie is at the hospital visiting his mother who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctors had assured Fat Charlie that it was a matter of hours until her death. Mr Nancy, her long estranged husband, enters the scene at the head of a brass band playing “Yellow Bird,” her favorite song, and at its conclusion begins handing around cans of brown ale. The very next day, his mother checks out of the hospital with her cancer in immediate and significant remission, and spends her life savings traveling around the world.

And these two traits are the key to Mr Nancy’s character: rather pointed and painful (for the butt) practical jokes mixed with a miraculous demonstration of the healing power of laughter. Both will be intertwined particularly amusingly throughout the course of Gaiman’s sorta-kinda follow up to American Gods, Anansi Boys. While a sequel in the chronological sense, Anansi Boys never touches upon the events in the preceding novel, so full of its own forward movement is it. The book jogs with a constant speed, more streamlined than its predecessor, dancing along as sprightly as the elderly looking Mr Nancy.

When Fat Charlie next tries to contact his father in Florida, he calls an old friend of the family only to find that his father has just died, having had a heart attack while singing “I Am What I Am” in a karaoke bar, his dying gesture being to try to pull down the tube top of the blond tourist he had been serenading. Typical is what Fat Charlie thinks, just the very word in the reader’s mind by this point despite our knowledge that Mr Nancy is a god.

Fat Charlie flies back to Florida in time to make the funeral. Approaching the graveside crowd, he makes a heartfelt speech about how he never said “I love you” to his father, how many of the attendants at the graveside probably knew his father much better than he did. He caps this off by telling the coffin “I love you.” The punchline? Wrong funeral party. It’s exactly that kind of book.

It’s the kind of books where an elderly lady’s driving is described as though she had “just discovered an enormous cup of coffee.” The kind where a passing series of photographs of famous people is described as being of “...the kind who gets as much fun out of life as they could until a new liver becomes available.” In short, the kind of book that is as fun as Mr Nancy himself.

Taken in hand by the same elderly friend of the family, Fat Charlie is let in on the family secrets. I’m not entirely sure how I’d react to being told that I was the offspring of gods, nor how it would feel to learn, as Fat Charlie does, that it was his twin brother who got all the powerful god stuff, while he got nothing. Informed that if he’d ever like to talk to his brother, all he needs to do is tell a spider, Fat Charlie’s eye-rolling is practically visible, it’s delivered with such dispatch. And, of course, the very next spider he sees, Fat Charlie mentions all this ridiculousness too.

And since this is a Neil Gaiman novel, it has just the effect we expect, prompting the arrival of Spider, Fat Charlie’s twin brother. Our hero can’t help but feel the distance between the two of them, the gap between the human and the god. Most specifically, Fat Charlie feels this as Spider’s coolness, the son of Anansi radiating a kind of preternatural hip. It’s the kind of smoothness factor that sets him apart immediately no matter who he meets, the kind of coolness that places him in the role of ringleader for whatever antic activities are on hand.

The two Anansi boys begin a night of mourning. The only thing that can salve their souls, Spider tells Charlie, is “Wine, women, and song.” Out for a night of drinking and so on, we are treated to this amusing exchange:

‘What is this?’
‘Funeral wine. The kind you drink for gods. They haven’t made it for a long time. It’s seasoned with bitter aloes and rosemary and the tears of broken-hearted virgins.’
‘And they sell it in a Fleet Street wine bar?’

This then leads to picking up a group of young women at a birthday party, which naturally progresses to — what else? — karaoke night. Ones series of improbable events fosters one ridiculous complication after another, each more enjoyable than the last, each making Fat Charlie even more frustrated and crazed.

Because, you see, if your father is a god and you stop to think about his behavior, you might conclude that he is a trickster god, and if your brother gets all the godness from his parentage, it’s entirely likely that he too is of the trickster persuasion. Which means trouble.

It isn’t long before Spider’s machinations get Fat Charlie caught up in all kinds of difficulties with his employer, the unctuous and unpleasant Graham Coates (“Graham Coates did not go for walks. He had people who did that for him.”), before Spider seduces Fat Charlie’s fiancée, and before Spider tries to steal his brother’s entire life. Learning rather quickly, Fat Charlie wastes no time in calling down other supernatural powers to assist him against his brother usurping his life.

We are led along in classic Gaiman style, which is usually light and entertaining with an undercurrent of a much darker thread built into the story. As time moves along, the jokes start to fall by the wayside and in their place, people are murdered with hammers, a crone opens her mouth and a flock of villainous birds pours out, and the more vicious sides of mythology whet their knives. If you are familiar with Gaiman’s writing, you will know that like many British writers (and unlike any number of American ones) that the plot will tidy itself up in a satisfying if not necessarily happy way, and that if a major character we’ve come to love has to die to make it happen, well, then, he or she will die. He writes with a kind of cheerful unsympathy.

Neil Gaiman is the quite possibly the best popular writer of stories as stories, stories as a kind of personal mythology, stories as personal mythologies. Few enough writers make the point in their tales of demonstrating the necessity in human life for stories, of how we live our lives as a kind of fiction, ourselves as narrator and protagonist, and how the stories we tell and the stories we are told shape us as human beings. He sweeps you up in his enthusiasm and makes you believe in the importance of stories. Listening to where in Anansi Boys Gaiman relates a number of Anansi fables, tales of trickery played by the god against his archenemy Tiger, you can believe that stories really are the most important thing in the entire universe. You can believe that nothing matters so much as the stories we tell. There is something in Anansi Boys that greatly confirms your feeling for life, and it is that jubilant sensation that proves Gaiman is a writer worth listening to.

Voted in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest British comedy acts, reader Lenny Henry is the perfect choice for this novel filled with characters of Caribbean descent. As a well-practiced character actor, he is all over the various voices needed for the book. Anansi’s broad deep patois, Fat Charlie’s slightly tinged British accent, Graham Coates’ snooty English businessman, and Spider’s smoothness. Listening to his reading is as much a treat as Gaiman’s novel is itself. A better match would be hard to find.

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