Book Review: American Gods, Part 1

Something I want to do with this blog is post reviews of things I haven’t finished yet, whether it be a book or a TV show I’m marathoning.  There’s something interesting in first impressions, when you haven’t gotten a chance to put together all the pieces and figure out what’s important and what’s just filler.  Today’s post is on the first five chapters of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

With that said, I’m going to let you all in on my dirty little secret: I’m not very well-read.

I have this list of great, classic books that I want to read, and every summer, I tell myself I’m going to get through it.  It never happens.  Most of the time, when I read a book, it comes from the teen section of Barnes and Noble and is all about characters’ first loves (and before you ask, yes, I have read every book in the Twilight and Fifty Shades series.  No, I am not a fan of either).

But there are tons of authors I want to fall in love with, and Neil Gaiman is one of them.  Besides American Gods, which I’m making my way through now, I’ve never read any of his books (which is also a damaging blow to my nerd cred, I know), though I follow him on Twitter and cried over his Doctor Who episode.  I even bought tickets to see him speak at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh next month, because I’m sure that I will love him (and it gives me a deadline by which I have to read all his books).

Over the summer, I bought the Barnes and Noble leatherbound anthology of American Gods and Anansi Boys, which is obscenely beautiful (as are all their leatherbound anthologies.  I have a few others, and I just want to stare at the pretty covers all day.  Seriously, look at it.)

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

p. 1-123

First, the plot so far.  Shadow is about to be released from prison, after serving three years for aggravated assault and battery.  Two days before his release, he’s called into the prison warden’s office, where’s informed that he’s going to be released early.  Shadow has no time to celebrate; before that news can sink in, he’s told that his wife was killed in a car accident.

Once he’s free, Shadow goes home to Eagle Point, Indiana, numb and surprisingly stoic about his wife’s death.  He hasn’t cried or really let it affect him, suggesting a strong state of denial; he calls her voicemail, noting that people make mistakes.  Surely this is just another mistake.

But there’s been no error, and as it turns out, Laura’s death isn’t the only tragedy that occurred; she died with Shadow’s best friend, Robbie; at Laura’s funeral, Robbie’s widow informs Shadow that the two were having an affair.

On his way home, he meets an old man with a glass eye.  He introduces himself as Wednesday, and offers Shadow a job.  Shadow’s initially resistant, but after sharing a few drinks in a bar and getting into a fight with a man who insists he’s a leprechaun who seems to pull silver coins out of thin air, Shadow starts working with Wednesday.  His job, he’s told, is to protect and transport Wednesday, and maybe hurt people from time to time.

Wednesday takes Shadow to the House on the Rock, a roadside attraction in Wisconsin that Wednesday claims is a “place of power”.  Inside, they meet up with Czernobog, a man they met earlier who has some animosity toward Wednesday.  Czernobog used to work in a slaughterhouse, where his job was to kill cows by hitting them with a sledgehammer.  He’s resistant to accompany Wednesday and Shadow, despite Wednesday’s insistence that he needs him for his mysterious plan, so Shadow comes up with a wager: if Czernobog beats him at checkers, he can stay at home and kill Shadow.  If Shadow wins, Czernobog comes with them.  They play two games: Czernobog wins first, then Shadow.  They agree that Czernobog will assist Wednesday, and after the unknown plan goes through, he can kill Shadow.

Inside, Shadow meets another associate of Wednesday, Miss Nancy.  The four of them head to a carousel in the house, supposedly the largest in the world, and once they start the ride, they’re transported to what Shadow is told is inside Wednesday’s head.  There he finds out the truth about his employer: Wednesday is Odin, who has called a meeting of other gods to prepare for an upcoming war.

I’m not normally a fan of fantasy.  The farthest I’ll go is Harry Potter, and even then, I resisted for years.  But if there’s something to a book besides its fantastical elements, then usually I can connect with it and see it as more than just a book about magic or dragons or what have you.  But it was easy for me to get into this book, because Gaiman slowly introduces Shadow (and the reader) into this world.  Shadow has no knowledge of gods and their power, or any idea what’s to come.  When he meets Wednesday, he’s just as clueless to the man’s intentions as the audience is.  By the time Shadow learns who Wednesday is and what his new job is really going to entail, the audience is already connected to these characters; their actions are secondary to their dynamic and personalities.

That said, I don’t know how interested I am just yet in all those fantastical elements.  The part I’ve read is just barely delving into them, so there’s a long way to go, but right now, I mostly care about Shadow’s journey.  Starting the book at the end of Shadow’s prison sentence established his personality right from the first page: he’s closed off, and doesn’t have anything in the world to keep him going besides his wife.  When he finds out she’s dead, he doesn’t cry or mourn; he stays quiet until he has all the facts.  It’s only once he finds out about her affair (and she visits him in the middle of the night – I’m not sure if it’s a ghost or zombie situation, but it’s emotionally compelling all the same) that he allows himself to break down.

That stoicism is why he starts traveling with Wednesday, and it’s a great shorthand for Gaiman; he doesn’t have to spend time explaining why Shadow would travel with this man he barely knows, why he would stick around after he finds out he’s working with gods, etc.  Shadow has nothing left.  The reason he makes his wager with Czernobog is because he has no reason to live; with nothing to keep him going, why not leave the town he felt no attachment to and travel with some stranger?

Near the end of the section, though, we see that maybe Shadow isn’t as fearless as we thought.  While driving some of the gods to a restaurant (you know, for an all-god dinner.  What, that’s not a thing?), he’s kidnapped by who I can only assume are people working for a character we met earlier, described only as being young and fat, who must be the opposing force in this upcoming war.

Now, throughout the novel, it’s mentioned that Shadow loves coin tricks, and practices them often, mostly to keep himself focused or just to give himself something to do.  When he wakes up after being kidnapped, he starts practicing, and Gaiman writes the following:

The thing about coin manipulation was that it took all Shadow’s head to do it; or rather, he could not do it if he was angry or upset, so the action of practicing an illusion, even one with, on its own, no possible use…calmed him, cleared his mind of turmoil and fear.

Maybe this is the secret to Shadow’s stoicism – it’s not that he doesn’t feel fear or anxiety, but rather that he distracts himself from it.  He’s often mentioned to be playing with a coin during his conversations with Wednesday, which in hindsight seems like an attempt to keep himself focused on something besides all the questions he must want to ask the man.  Still, it’s not an infallible method.  He wonders if his captors are going to kill him, and the thought makes his hand tremble, enough to make him drop the coin he’s been playing with.

Some thoughts I’m considering for the rest of the book:

-Will Czernobog and Shadow’s debt come up again?  I can’t imagine Gaiman would end the book with Czernobog hitting Shadow in the head with a sledgehammer after a full-scale war between gods, so I assume the debt gets paid off in some other way.

-Shadow’s race is never explicitly mentioned, aside from a prison guard asking what he is and a mention that he and his mother made a trip “back to the States” when he was a child.  I wonder if this ambiguity was done to avoid a natural connection or loyalty to particular gods – if he has no home, then he has no legends or traditions, and thus nothing and no one to honor.

-I can’t think of Odin without thinking of Thor, which then makes me want to watch Thor.  Odin mentioned Thor and Loki once, very briefly, and I was distracted for the next five pages.

-Shadow gets a fortune at the House on the Rock that reads, “Every ending is a new beginning.  Your lucky number is none.  Your lucky color is dead.  Motto: Like father, like son.”  I assume it’s foreshadowing, and it’s almost like the universe is telling Shadow he’s not going to survive this war.  Why, then, did Wednesday choose him?  Does it have something to do with his father?

So that’s the first five chapters of American Gods!  Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts!  What jumped out at you in the first quarter of the book?  For anyone that’s read it before, is there something important that I didn’t pick up on?

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