Having been extraordinarily busy at work, I took a few days off and popped into a bookstore looking for a fun vacation read. When I saw Neil Gaiman’s American Gods proudly displayed on the shelf with its awesome pulp throwback cover, I felt compelled to pick it up. I went to a bar in the afternoon, ordered a Kenzinger, and sat down with the book. I hoped I would break a run of bad books I’d read recently.
American Gods was better than most of them, and maybe my reading of it suffered by comparison, but the novel contains a fatal flaw that let me down and left me feeling disappointed yet again. For all the richness of Neil Gaiman’s mythology laden America, and its imaginative immigrant history, our hero is largely passive. He’s as much of a tourist here as the reader is.
The novel opens with our protagonist, Shadow Moon, an ex-con, just leaving prison after hearing some bad news. He’s warned that he’s better off in prison than out in the world as there is a real bad storm coming. He almost immediately meets Mr. Wednesday, a shadowy figure with mysterious powers, and accepts a lucrative job offer as his driver.
I’ll be damned, though, if I can figure out what is motivating Shadow. Why is he going along with this plot when it does nothing but leave in him excruciating pain and place him in dangerous situations that he is powerless to resolve? It’s a good thing, then, that this novel does not lack in deus ex machinas, most notably exercised through the superpowers of Shadow’s zombie wife.
Part of Shadow’s passivity as a character is the result of a recently experienced trauma and remorse for the choices he made in the past. These choices were catastrophic: they took him away from his wife and landed him in prison, where on his last day, he received news of his wife’s death. Her death was one of infamy and scandal and it has a tragic effect on Shadow. He is is trying to escape his past. He wants to move away from something - that’s clear. What is unclear is what he is moving towards. What is he trying to become by agreeing to go on a road trip with Mr. Wednesday?
We never find out because the road trip conceit is rapidly abandoned in favor situating our hero in the safe-from-meddling-gods town of Lakeside. Here we are introduced to a cast of stock characters who don’t do much or go anywhere. We are also given two central mysteries - where is the missing girl that Shadow saw hanging out with her friends on his way to Lakeside, and when will a car sitting on a frozen lake fall into it? Neither of these is resolved until the epilogue.
This brings to mind another issue I had while reading the book - there are about six plots that require resolution: Shadow’s heritage, the consequences of the mysterious resurrection of Shadow’s wife, the missing girl in Lakeside, the car on the frozen lake, the conflict between the Old and New Gods, and the resolution of Czernobog’s promise to kill Shadow. Structuring a story that can handle this many plots would be an enormous task for any writer, and in this case Gaiman doesn’t quite pull it off.
It felt to me like some of these plots were grafted onto a much tighter story just to add mystery and thus to keep the pages. And the pages do turn. It is a well written book full of mysteries. However, most of these plots don’t contribute to Shadow’s journey, and Shadow’s role in resolving these story threads is, again, inherently passive. He doesn’t have to take action for any of these to resolve. He is either given the solution to the mystery by supernatural means, or is rescued from danger by forces beyond his reckoning or control.
What I really wanted out of this book was a character who was motivated to find a reason to take meaningful action in the world even if there are powers beyond him that he can’t control. I wanted a hero whose self-sacrifice was an event that changed the world, even if it was just a small change. I think a novel like this lives or dies with its ability to take the reader on the journey with the protagonist. While there are other significant issues with the book, to me they are not worth addressing if the character arc of our protagonist is uninteresting at its core. I would have loved a great road trip story, or a fish-out-of-water-story, both of which are teased, but never fully developed.
I’m well aware of American Gods’ cult status as a novel, as well as the number of fans it has. It’s even been made into an event-viewing TV show by Bryan Fuller, who left Star Trek: Discovery to make it.
Unfortunately, if the show is anything like the novel, I don’t think I’ll be tuning in.