By Neil Gaiman
Morrow. 465 pp. $26
At least since sailors of late antiquity heard a voice crying "The Great Pan is dead!," writers have wondered about the fate of the gods. Did Zeus and the Roman Pantheon and the children of Odin simply vanish? Did all those folkloric satyrs, imps and kobolds, those leprechauns, nymphs and little people just evaporate, like dew in the sunlight of reason? Or might they, in fact, still be among us, unrecognized, somewhat diminished in power, but nonetheless here?
This is, in large part, the premise of American Gods. Neil Gaiman -- acclaimed for his Sandman graphic novels and for the comic Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett) -- imagines that all the immigrants who've ever come to America brought their gods along too. But over time the old-world beliefs faded, and the vitalizing sacrifices to the ancient deities were abandoned. Without worshipers, these erstwhile lords of Nature drifted aimlessly around the country. A few, like Thor, committed suicide. Others took up professions vaguely associated with their traditional attributes. So a goddess of love, such as the Middle Eastern Bilquis, turns tricks in Hollywood. Anansi the Spider changes into Mr. Nancy, a courtly old black man with a knack for clever stories. An Arabic ifrit, or jinni, whirls through Manhattan as a cab driver. Ibis and Anubis -- Egyptian gods of the dead -- naturally become morticians. An Irish folk legend, Mad Sweeney, shuffles through the streets as a homeless wino in a dirty T-shirt.
Yet even as some deities grow rickety and neglected, new ones spring into lusty maturity -- our modern gods of the stock market, the media, the Internet, the credit card and shopping mall and cell phone. Every day these gain in strength and ambition. And increasingly the two opposing belief systems clash. Though these strutting new gods may be haughty and powerful, the old ones are clever and desperate. Rather than allow his kind to disappear into oblivion, their leader, Odin, chooses bold action. He will round up his supernatural cronies and rivals; together they will gird themselves for a great final battle against the forces of the modern world. Immortals will perish at this Ragnarok, but the ancient gods just might triumph in the end.
Does all this sound good? It is. Mystery, satire, sex, horror, poetic prose -- American Gods uses all these to keep the reader turning the pages. Its main character is a likable young guy in his mid-thirties named Shadow, a former physical trainer from a small Indiana town. In the novel's opening pages, Shadow has just spent three years in prison and is eager to be released. He can't wait to see his wife, Laura. But then a fellow inmate murmurs "Big storm coming. Keep your head down," and Shadow's whole life is altered. On his way home, he keeps bumping into the bearded, Jack Daniels-drinking Mr. Wednesday, who repeatedly offers him a job. Eventually, Shadow accepts -- quaffing three glasses of mead to seal the contract -- and becomes the driver, confidant and bodyguard to this peripatetic grifter and wheeler-dealer, only gradually learning the truth about his employer's identity.
Naturally, with a name like Shadow our hero is himself more than he realizes. Why, for instance, does he have these strange dreams about a buffalo-headed man? Is it somehow important that he should be so fiercely in love with Laura, or that he has mastered various coin tricks? How does he manage to survive beatings and capture by the enemy? Why do cats like him so? And do the characters on television sitcoms really talk to him? What, finally, is his ultimate purpose in Mr. Wednesday's shadowy plan?
As this apocalyptic novel progresses, Gaiman balances several different narratives: Shadow's "on-the-road" adventures, as he and Wednesday crisscross the country stopping at cheesy roadside attractions -- actually nodes of deep supernatural power -- to recruit various beings for the coming battle; tales of ancient nomads, African slaves and Irish immigrants, who in ages past transported their gods to these shores; and Shadow's peculiar dreams, in which he visits otherworldly realms and undergoes instruction and rebirth. To keep the story from growing too grandiose, Gaiman throws in a fair amount of humor: Though Wednesday travels all over these United States, he stays off the freeways because "he didn't know which side the freeways were on." There are also two major subplots: 1) the death-defying love between Shadow and his lost Laura; and 2) Shadow's interactions with the populace of picture-postcard Lakeside, where he holes up when the Bad Guys are hot on his trail. As any reader of Richard Matheson or Ursula Le Guin knows, a village that seems too idyllic must be paying some hellish price for its perfection.
About two-thirds of the way through American Gods, Shadow tells a young woman that she wouldn't believe the things that had happened to him. Oh yeah! She answers him with a catalogue aria:
"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen -- I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo woman is going to come back and kick everyone's ass. . . . I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we'll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm. . . . I believe that anyone who claims to know what's going on will lie about the little things too. . . . I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it."
Not everyone cares for fantasy, and some people can't read the genre at all, unless it's labeled magic realism. But if you have enjoyed, say, John Crowley's Little, Big or Stephen King's The Stand or the urbane horror fiction of Jonathan Carroll, not to mention Gaiman's own Sandman or Frank Miller's Ronin, then American Gods arrives just in time for your July or August vacation. There are flaws in the book -- Shadow's big moment feels anti-climactic, the gods of the media could use more definition, and the novel is probably too long -- but on the whole the story accelerates crisply toward its surprise ending. So watch out this summer: Big storm coming. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.