Throughout Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (1996) Stephen King’s influence loomed, especially the Stephen King of The Stand and The Shining. This surprised me because I have found Gaiman in his other, later works to be a fairly creative, original writer. Like King in the two aforementioned books, Gaiman interweaves narrative strands and characters, builds towards a mounting climax, and then can’t quite make it work. There’s much that is interesting and original about American Gods, but parts are derivative, parts wander or drag, and parts are intent on teaching us a bit too much about comparative religions.
American Gods could easily have been a graphic novel. Its premise would have worked well in that medium: millennia of American immigrants, beginning with the first native Americans, brought their own religions to America. By the time of the novel, all the old gods of the immigrant traditions—these gods are actual characters in this narrative--have been forgotten or trivialized, replaced by the gods of media, capitalism, and industry. The United States is not hospitable to the old religions. The novel builds towards a final confrontation (referred to in increasingly tiresome terms as a “storm” that “is coming”) between the old gods and the new.
This novel certainly works well in the tradition of American road novels, moving back and forth across the continent, mostly through the middle sections of the United States, with occasional visits to the west (Las Vegas) and the East. The final battle is set in Rock City on Lookout Mountain. America as this novel portrays it is an expanse of empty spaces, of towns with dwindling populations, of wandering and embittered gods who have been forgotten or cast out or both.
An interesting array of characters populates the novel, many of them based on gods from Nordic and African and Asian traditions. A grifter named Wednesday (based on the Nordic god Odin) plays a prominent role, as does a paroled prisoner who refers to himself as Shadow. He is the central character.
Students of comparative religion and world mythologies would find this book rich and interesting. It’s full of hypotheses and theories about how religions are born, how they develop and die out. This is a novel, after all, and its speculations would probably not hold up under careful scrutiny. Gaiman certainly did a lot of research for the book, and I suspect he knew Joseph Campbell (Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough) well. Sometimes the baggage of New Age mythologies weighs the narrative down. But I found it readable and interesting.