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A modern myth master blends the real and the unreal, gods and tricksters.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, September 25, 2005

ANANSI BOYS

By Neil Gaiman

Morrow. 336 pp. $26.95

With Anansi Boys , Neil Gaiman's delightful, funny and affecting new novel, the bestselling author has scored the literary equivalent of a hole in one, employing the kind of self-assured storytelling that makes it all look so easy. One can imagine Gaiman's legion of fans putting down the book and rushing en masse to pen their own riffs on traditional folklore and contemporary pop culture. But it's hard to imagine anyone topping Anansi Boys , if only because it's a tall tale to end all tall tales, inspired by the trickiest of all trickster gods, Anansi the Spider, whose origins lie in Ghana.

Tales of the West African deity traveled with slaves to North America, where the clever spider became the anthropomorphic figure known as Aunt Nancy, Anancy, or Bre'r Ananse (a counterpart to Bre'r Rabbit, another African American trickster). In Gaiman's last full-length novel, American Gods , Anansi made an appearance as the (mostly) human Mr. Nancy. In Anansi Boys , Mr. Nancy cedes center stage to his sons, Fat Charlie and Spider. As the novel's catchphrase puts it, "God is dead. Meet the kids."

Only Anansi isn't exactly God; he's a god, sort of the god next door: "In the old stories, Anansi lives just like you do or I do, in his house. He is greedy, of course, and lustful, and tricky, and full of lies. And he is good-hearted, and lucky, and sometimes even honest. Sometimes he is good, sometimes he is bad. He is never evil. Mostly, you are on Anansi's side. This is because Anansi owns all the stories." Anansi isn't exactly dead, either, though it's true that Fat Charlie's troubles begin when he attends his estranged father's burial. Fat Charlie "was only ever fat for a handful of years. . . . But the name Fat Charlie clung to him, like chewing gum to the sole of a tennis shoe." He grew up in Florida but now lives in London, where he is engaged to a nice girl named Rosie, who won't sleep with him until after they're married. He works for the loathsome, weaselly Grahame Coats, a talent agent who for years has been fleecing his clients, including the delectable Maeve Livingstone, widow of Morris Livingstone, "once the most famous short Yorkshire comedian in Britain."

Fat Charlie's pre-marital and career woes work in tandem with his chronic insecurity and a constant, slow-burning sense of embarrassment, guaranteeing that nothing very exciting will ever happen to him -- until, that is, he goes to Florida for Mr. Nancy's funeral.

Afterwards, Charlie visits some family friends, four little old ladies who just happen to be witches. The most formidable of these is Mrs. Dunwiddy: "As a boy, Fat Charlie had imagined Mrs. Dunwiddy in Equatorial Africa, peering disapprovingly through her thick spectacles at the newly-erect hominids. 'Keep out of my front yard,' she would tell a recently evolved and rather nervous specimen of Homo habilis , 'or I going to belt you around your ear-hole, I tell you.' "

There's also Mrs. Higgler, who tells Fat Charlie that his father was a god.

" 'He was not a god. He was my dad.'

" 'You can be both,' she said. 'It happens.' "

And Mrs. Higgler informs Fat Charlie that, if he wants to see the brother he never knew he had, all he has to do is tell a spider. Charlie, who obviously never learned that it is extremely unwise to scoff at witchy old ladies, returns to London and rescues a spider from his bathtub. Perhaps it was the devil in him. Probably it was the alcohol. " 'If you see my brother,' said Fat Charlie to the spider, 'tell him he ought to come by and say hello.' " And of course, his brother -- nicknamed Spider -- does just that.

Spider is everything Charlie is not: lucky, debonair, smoothly confident, possessed of their father's silver tongue and gift for wooing women. Before you can say ouch, Spider has stolen his brother's job, his fiancée, the best room in Fat Charlie's house. Rosie doesn't just tumble into Spider's arms: She tumbles into bed with him and shows few signs of ever getting out again. Worse, the awful Grahame Coats frames Fat Charlie for embezzlement and has him thrown in jail.

Now, you might think that none of this could possibly be Fat Charlie's fault. But you would be wrong. He summoned Spider; now he realizes he has to get rid of him. Fat Charlie returns to Florida and the four old ladies, who concoct a ritual that gains him entry to the spirit world where totemic animal-gods dwell.

And that's when things get really interesting.

Gaiman first came to prominence in the late 1980s with The Sandman , the brilliant series that helped reinvent comics and put graphic novels on the map as Literature with a capital L. His previous full-length books, while wildly popular, are hit-or-miss, hobbled by epic ambitions that can occasionally seem pretentious and clever conceits that overpower other concerns such as characterization and pacing.

In Anansi Boys , he gets it all right: Here, Gaiman's storytelling instincts are as remarkable and assured as Anansi's own. As Fat Charlie frantically attempts to undo the damage he's caused and save his brother Spider, and the world, from the forces he's unwittingly loosed, Anansi Boys becomes darker, richer, wiser than any of Gaiman's earlier works.

Here's old Mr. Nancy, in his ghostly guise: " 'Now, Anansi stories, they have wit and trickery and wisdom. Now, all over the world, all of the people they aren't just thinking of hunting and being hunted any more. Now they're starting to think their way out of problems -- sometimes thinking their way into worse problems. They still need to keep their bellies full, but now they're trying to figure out how to do it without working -- and that's the point where people start using their heads. . . . That's when they start to make the world.' "

Lewis Hyde titled his noted study of the trickster mythos Trickster Makes This World . With Anansi Boys , Neil Gaiman has made it his own world, too, and given readers a first-class ticket for the journey there. ·

Elizabeth Hand recently completed her eighth novel, "Generation Loss."

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