My rating: 5 of 5 stars
American Gods is the story of a hapless and gentle brute who goes by the nickname “Shadow.” We meet Shadow as he is being released from prison a few days early because the wife that he loved dearly has passed away. While the description of Shadow’s imposing size and criminal activity might lead us to believe he’s an unsavory character, we find him sympathetic from the outset–though we don’t learn that it was virtue more than vice that landed him in prison until late in the book.
Given that the name of the book is American Gods others who’ve read it may wonder why I say it’s about Shadow instead of being about a war between America’s old gods and its new ones (e.g. technology and mass media.)The latter statement is more likely what one will read on the dust jacket. However, for me it was the character of Shadow that kept me reading. As with any great novel’s main character, Shadow is put in predicament after predicament, and one must see how he’ll handle them. Eventually, we suspect that enough will be enough and he will have to choose to act in his own best interest rather than in the moral manner.
The importance of character in this novel doesn’t mean that it’s lacking a plot. Early on we are given a great hook when Shadow is introduced to the character of “Wednesday.” The hook is that Wednesday seems to know things about Shadow that no one could, and he makes a proposal to Shadow. The reader is thus drawn in and wants to know how Wednesday knows the impossible and whether Shadow will agree to the vague offer. While we don’t know what agreeing will mean for Shadow, we suspect that it’s tailor-made to land him back in hot water.
While Shadow seems to be always ending up with the short end of the stick, what makes things interesting is that he’s not dumb. He doesn’t stumble into these traps unwittingly. Rather, Shadow defies convention and, by some measures, is really quite a sharp man. Often, he sees the folly of his decisions but is compelled by virtue to act in ways that put him at risk.
Shadow is on a journey of self-discovery throughout the book, and what he ultimately discovers about himself is spectacular.
In a way American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s commentary on America, and Shadow represents America at its most virtuous. We see plenty of America’s faults and failings in the process, its vainglory and hunger for power. But in Shadow we see a character who is honor bound to do what he thinks is the right thing–even when it comes at great personal cost and even when he knows he is being manipulated.
I found this novel to be highly readable and would recommend it. It has Gaiman’s characteristic humor, darkness, and dark humor.