I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman works before. I loved Ocean and the End of the Lane and had mostly good feelings about Neverwhere and that book, and its protagonist Richard Mayhew, has grown on me over time. (In fact, I suggest reading my friend Ale’s review from this year to get a better take on the book without the depression funk I was in in 2013). Late last year I saw badkittyuno’s review of American Gods and decided that it would be my Gaiman read for the new year. As a bonus, she had listened to the tenth anniversary edition full cast audiobook and raved about it. I wanted to expand my bookish horizons into the land of audiobook (I’d had some rough starts up to this point with the genre) and decided that this would be a great plan.
With those decisions made I got myself a copy on Audible and set about going on a road trip with Shadow on my way to and from work in January. It took over three weeks to listen to this story, because Gaiman’s preferred text which makes up the tenth anniversary edition, is 12,000 words longer than the original and is over 600 pages in print. In audio form it was 19 and a half hours long. Initially I thought, “Oh god, I’ve made a terrible mistake” and then I listened to the sultry tones of Neil Gaiman’s introduction and thought “I think this may work out just fine.”
The entire time I listened to this story I was caught up in the unfolding drama. The basic story of American Gods circulates around our man Shadow. Shadow is finishing up a three year stint in jail but just days before his release, Shadow’s wife and best friend are killed in a car accident. With his life in pieces (and strange circumstances looming) Shadow accepts a job as a driver, bodyguard of sorts, and errand boy from a strange man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. The job takes Shadow on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters and a looming war amongst beings he would not have previously believed existed.
But what of the story beyond the plot? What was the meaning here? In my previous experience with Neil Gaiman there is ALWAYS more than what you see at the surface, but I couldn’t seem to put my finger on it. I actually think the audio experience might be part of the reason that I wasn’t making the bigger connections. I knew, for example, who my favorite character was (Sam the hitchhiker, without a doubt), I knew who I was most pleased to see show up on the page (Mr. Nancy/Anansi), which characters I couldn’t figure out (the Zorya Sisters) and that I was happy to be in the company of Shadow because he always seemed to just roll with the crazy punches. But was that all? No, but I didn’t piece it together until the author literally told me at the end of the audiobook.
In the appendix of the novel, Gaiman answers the question of how he as a Brit can write a book about American myths and the American soul. As he goes about talking about how foolish it might seem, he explains that when he wrote Sandman he created an imaginary America. Then after he moved to America he realized his ‘America’ was wholly fictional and the real one is more interesting. So in many ways American Gods chronicles the immigrant experience, both in its historic scale and its personal one.
We’re left with musings on the mythic America, a country that refuses to be completely known. And we’re given a character in Shadow who is much the same way. There is still much we don’t know about Shadow given the time we’ve spent with him, but maybe that’s the point after all.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.