Today I Read…American Gods

Today I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Shadow’s life was so close to straightening itself out. He was due to be released from prison in a couple of days, and his wife and his best friend and his job were waiting for him. And then he gets summoned to the warden’s office and told he is being released early, because his wife Laura has died in a car crash. With his best friend. Who she was sleeping with.

Then Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as a bodyguard while they travel around America persuading special people to take Mr. Wednesday’s side in a forthcoming and non-specified war. People who seem oddly familiar and have special abilities, like Mad Sweeney who claims to be a leprechaun, Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel the funeral home directors, and Czernobog who used to kill animals for the butcher. And his dead wife keeps visiting and saving his life. Shadow just wanted to go back to his peaceful, boring life. Instead he is caught in a war between the gods of the old world and the new gods, and neither side is what they seem to be.

I majored in Classics in undergrad, but I didn’t recognize most of the gods in this book. The only ancient gods that most people know about are the Greek & Roman ones, even though there is a whole planet and several thousand years of cultures and stories to choose from. In a school with an actual Classics department, there were no classes offered for any other mythologies except Greece & Rome. But the existence of all of those other gods is really driven home in this book. Gaiman reminds the reader that when all of those waves of immigrants came to the New World, they carried their cultures and their beliefs and their gods with them, not to mention all of the cultures and beliefs and gods that were already here. And also that people did not stop believing when they came here–sometimes they just found new things to believe in.

While on the surface this is a road trip novel, it gets deeper the farther in you go. This is not a potato chip book that you can read and forget about an hour later. I think I need to go back to the source material, to the original myths of the Norse, the Egyptians, the First Nations, the Czechs, the Hindus, the Irish, the Mesopotamians, and then reread the novel. I think I don’t quite know what I think about this book–but I’m interested to find that out.

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As the plane took off he fell asleep. Shadow was in a dark place, and the thing staring at him wore a buffalo’s head, rank and furry with huge wet eyes. Its body was a man’s body, oiled and slick.

“Changes are coming,” said the buffalo without moving its lips. “There are certain decisions that will have to be made.”

Firelight flickered from wet cave walls.

“Where am I?” Shadow asked.

“In the earth and under the earth,” said the buffalo man. “You are where the forgotten wait.” His eyes were liquid black marbles, and his voice was a rumble from beneath the world. He smelled like wet cow. “Believe,” said the rumbling voice. “If you are to survive, you must believe.”

“Believe what?” asked Shadow. “What should I believe?”

He stared at Shadow, the buffalo man, and he drew himself up huge, and his eyes filled with fire. He opened his spit-flecked buffalo mouth and it was red inside with the flames that burned inside him, under the earth.

“Everything,” roared the buffalo man.

*********************************************************************************************

Shadow said, “Where are we taking the body?”

“Virginia. There’s a tree,” said Nancy.

“A world tree,” said Czernobog with gloomy satisfaction. “We had one in my part of the world. But ours grew under the world, not above it.”

“We put him at the foot of the tree,” said Nancy. “We leave him there. We let you go. We drive south. There’s a battle. Blood is shed. Many die. The world changes, a little.”

“You don’t want me at your battle? I’m pretty big. I’m good in a fight.”

Nancy turned his head to Shadow and smiled—the first real smile Shadow had seen on Mr. Nancy’s face since he had rescued Shadow from the Lumber County Jail. “Most of this battle will be fought in a place you cannot go, and you cannot touch.”

“In the hearts and the minds of the people,” said Czernobog. “Like at the big roundabout.”

“Huh?”

“The carousel,” said Mr. Nancy.

“Oh,” said Shadow. “Backstage. I got it. Like the desert with the bones in.”

Mr. Nancy raised his head. “Every time I figure you don’t have enough sense to bring guts to a bear, you surprise me. Yeah, that’s where the real battle will happen. Everythin’ else will just be flash and thunder.”

“Tell me about the vigil,” said Shadow.

“Someone has to stay with the body. It’s a tradition. We’ll find somebody.”

“He wanted me to do it.”

“No,” said Czernobog. “It will kill you. Bad, bad, bad idea.” “Yeah? It’ll kill me? To stay with his body?”

“It’s not what I’d want at my funeral,” said Mr. Nancy. “When I die, I just want them to plant me somewhere warm. And then when pretty women walk over my grave I would grab their ankles, like in that movie.”

“I never saw that movie,” said Czernobog.

“Of course you did. It’s right at the end. It’s the high school movie. All the children goin’ to the prom.” Czernobog shook his head. Shadow said, “The film’s called Carrie, Mr. Czernobog. Okay, one of you tell me about the vigil.”

Nancy said, “You tell him. I’m drivin’.”

“I never heard of no film called Carrie. You tell him.”

Nancy said, “The person on the vigil—gets tied to the tree. Just like Wednesday was. And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights. No food, no water. All alone. At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived . . . well, it could happen. And Wednesday will have had his vigil.”

Czernobog said, “Maybe Alviss will send us one of his people. A dwarf could survive it.”

“I’ll do it,” said Shadow.

“No,” said Mr. Nancy.

“Yes,” said Shadow. The two old men were silent. Then Nancy said, “Why?”

“Because it’s the kind of thing a living person would do,” said Shadow.

“You are crazy,” said Czernobog.

“Maybe. But I’m going to hold Wednesday’s vigil.”

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