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American Gods

American Gods - Neil Gaiman I have always loved Neil Gaiman's books for younger readers, but I confess that his adult novels have left me cold. He wrote (I thought) like someone who had made his start in comics and graphic novels. Although his writing was witty, his characters seemed shallow, and his settings seemed dim without the aid of pictures.

American Gods, however, has changed my mind entirely. First there was this line:

"Wednesday looked like he had learned to smile from a manual"

I knew right away that this book would be different, and it was. It was a difficult book to read - long, meandering, and often without much of a central focus or plot. But in the end (to my surprise) that didn't matter so much. I immediately added this book to the list of my favorites, something which I don't do very often!

The protagonist of American Gods is a man named Shadow. Shadow is an ex-con, and when we meet him he has just lost everything - his wife, his best friend, and the job that was supposed to be waiting for him when he got out of prison. He meets the aforementioned Wednesday, and his life takes an unexpected turn.

In this novel, Gods are very much real. And what happens to a god when his followers no longer believe? He scrapes by, driving a taxi or running cons, but he does not disappear. American Gods is loosely the story of the conflict between these old Gods, and the new gods of America (Media, Technology etc.) Really, though, it is Gaiman's love letter to the US, with all its eccentricities and strangeness.

I read this novel while I was on a trip to Europe. I think this made the observations about sacred spaces in American shine brightly - while I was walking through the beautiful cathedrals of Prague and Vienna, I was reading this:

"There are churches all across the states though," said Shadow.

"In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists' offices. No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they've never visited, or by erecting a giant bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that."

That, my friends, is good writing. It describes how I feel about roadside attractions - most especially House on the Rock. Have you been to House on the Rock? Because you should go. It's actually so much crazier than the book makes it seem, and it is so, so awesome. Also, the book will make more sense if you've been there, as the scenes in House on the Rock don't make much sense otherwise.

The book is not without flaws. There isn't much of a climax, and at times it seems more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel. At times the human characters can seem a little flat. The main character, Shadow, is a bit of a cipher, though I think that works well for the story. But in spite of these flaws, I'm still giving the novel 5 stars because it spoke to something within me.

Recommended to anyone who celebrates the weird and the strange parts of the US. Knowledge of mythology is nice, but to be honest it's not required - it's easy enough to look up the gods you don't know on wikipedia.