Friday, March 14, 2008

Continued Reading of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I'm halfway through Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I'm far from a slow reader, but as demands have increased in my life, I've had to compensate by confining my reading time to the rare spare weekend moments and weekday train commutes.

It's a thick read, but the writing is so lyrical, and the content so grabbing, most people wouldn't dream of quitting on it. I'm not quite sure I even want it to end. When I read this book, I feel I've lost myself in an alternate universe. When the protagonist Shadow (no real name revealed thus far) comes to reside for a short time in the quaint small town of Lakeside (set in Wisconsin, I think), I yearn to experience its small-town friendliness and eat "pasties" at Mabel's restaurant (specialty regional handheld meat pies) right alongside him.

Shadow is very likable. He easily perceives the inner desires of those around him. Although his character entered the story as a former small-time crook getting released from prison, you find it hard to hold that against him. I feel that he really wants to do the right thing and just survive his ordeals - he wants to return to a normal life again, before this metaphysical storm brewed and the "old" gods (i.e. his mysterious employer Mr. Wednesday, who is really an incarnation of the Norse god Odin) required his assistance. Now and then, his dead wife Laura pops in, unannounced, to say hello, moving about in the physical plane, but still appearing as the corpse that she is. Shadow wants more than anything to fulfill her one wish, which is to return to the world of the living.

He is a loner, no real ties to anyone, it seems. During the course of his work with Wednesday, he travels like a nomad, setting down roots just enough to graze the social topsoil, and then off again. He dreams of a mysterious Buffalo Man who sits beside a fire in a cave and speaks in riddles, never giving straight answers to Shadow's questions. Shadow is warned by Wednesday not to ask too many questions, and he wanders along in this arrangement not having a full picture of how he fits in. He is prodded to each next episode in his existence by odd occurrences and by taking direction from Wednesday.

Along the way Shadow is besieged by men in black who, so far, as I understand are on the side of the "new" gods, those of technology and modernization. They try to convince him that theirs is the "right" side. He is accosted by a Mr. Wood and Mr. Stone who work for the "new" side. They remind him of C.I.A. types, but they are not. Shadow is roughed up, interrogated, locked inside a nondescript space in an unmarked train, and assumes he is going to die. Just in the nick of time, Laura appears on the scene, kills his enemies and helps him escape. He sets off alone, on the run, toward a town called Cairo after a foul-mouthed raven in the forest tells him that is his path. There are other, just as bizarre, episodes in the book. Mad Sweeney, a self-proclaimed Leprechaun, who, although deceased, stays with the living long enough to drink and boast throughout his own wake. A being speaking through Lucille Ball's character from "I Love Lucy" talks to him from a hotel television set. She ends the conversation by asking him if he ever wondered what Lucy's tits looked like. Then, she offers to show him.

Wednesday seems to treat Shadow well. So far, it's hard to know why, of all people, he chose to so aggressively pursue Shadow as a partner, in particular - a freshly-released prisoner tasting his first inkling of civilization on a flight to what is left of his home. Maybe it's because he had no one, nothing to connect him to anything, and a drifter was needed for the job. Plus, he was down on his luck, no money, no job and desperate -- a good combination. I'm sure that will come to light further into the book.

Shadow seems to be able to read minds and possesses the ability known as remote viewing. He practices sleight-of-hand coin tricks to pass the time. Coins figure into the story very often. When he first seals the deal of working with Wednesday over a few bottles of honey mead, he gets a coin from Mad Sweeney, which he later tosses onto the dirt atop Laura's grave (this turns out to be the very object that brings her to life). He meets a strange, fragile old woman who is miraculously light on her feet late at night and accompanies her to a rooftop where she waves her hand over the bright image of the moon and, unexplainably, produces him a silver coin. He continues to grow quite capable of his coin tricks, having honed them during the endless moments of his jail term. Throughout the book, Shadow uses these to pass the time and amuse curious children. There is much symbolism in this book, although half of it misses me totally, and I imagine the coins somehow figure into that.

I anticipate the story will grow even weirder. The storm continues to brew on the distant horizon, and the signs of war are beginning to peak. And I haven't even reached the climax of the novel.

No comments: