In the late 1980s and early ’90s, British writer Neil Gaiman helped reinvent the entire comics industry. Along with those other classics of postmodern apocalypse, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Gaiman’s graphic novels—Violent Cases, Black Orchid, Signal to Noise, The Books of Magic, and the phenomenally successful series The Sandman—drew on the greater arcana of 19th- and 20th-century pop culture to create an enthralling mythos that incorporated literature, rock music, classical mythology, serial killers, superheroes, and transgender heroines. Working with artists like Dave McKean and Mark Hempel, Gaiman created a pantheon of enduring comics icons. The Sandman’s central character was a gaunt Morpheus who resembled guitarist Johnny Thunders, but the series’ most popular character was the punk waif Death, a fetching amalgam of the young Patti Smith and Winona Ryder’s suburban goth in Beetlejuice.
The Sandman ended in 1996, leaving literate high school students bereft, although Gaiman’s 1996 novel Neverwhere helped ease their grief. In his new novel, American Gods, Gaiman returns to the fertile killing ground that nourished The Sandman: that peculiarly American crossroads where pop culture intersects with religion, violence, and death.
Shadow is a 32-year-old ex-con who, upon his release from prison, becomes the bodyguard of a mysterious one-eyed grifter named Wednesday. Shadow soon flashes onto the fact that his new employer is no ordinary con man. Still, he sticks around, accompanying Wednesday on a journey through the dark heart of the American Midwest, a journey that turns out to be a recruiting expedition.
Wednesday is not the only ancient deity who has survived into the present day. The American landscape is littered with old gods, the mythological detritus left by millennia of immigration from every country on earth. As their human followers have gradually forsaken the pagan deities, the gods themselves have devolved into petty thieves, drifters, prostitutes, con men, and drunks. A few pockets of belief and sacrifice remain—neo-pagans, Aryan cultists, genuine believers among Native American tribes. Their belief in the old ways gives the gods power to exist, even in their diminished capacities.
But over the last century, new gods have begun to flourish, gods of electronic media, of commerce and bureaucracy. Feisty young immigrants eager to reshape the cultural landscape, these newcomers don’t want to share the country with their predecessors. They declare war upon the old gods. Shadow and Wednesday desperately attempt to pull together a ragtag army of supernatural conscripts.
As a novel premise, this doesn’t exactly have the champagne shimmer it possessed when writers like Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Alfred Bester first exploited it, decades ago. The new gods in Gaiman’s pantheon are folks like the ur-anchorwoman Media, the ultra-geek Technical Boy, a few tired Men in Black. They aren’t original or scary enough to generate much tension: In a contest with, say, the sledgehammer-wielding giant Czernobog, who wouldn’t put their money on the guy with the hammer? The novel’s pacing is leisurely, its narrative propulsion interrupted by a series of set pieces—how ancient African gods became transmuted into voudon idols, the suggested origins of North American Ice Age cults—that, diverting as they are, sabotage the story’s bid for page-turner status.
Shadow’s part in all this is to act as Wednesday’s recruiter, tracking down-at-the-heels deities and trying to enlist them for the final battle. Gaiman gets some nice riffs off Shadow’s encounters with the ancient Egyptian gods of the dead, who now run a funeral parlor in the Mississippi River town of Thebes; there’s also an endearing incarnation of the African spider trickster Anansi, a charming elderly gent called Aunt Nancy. As it follows Shadow across the country, American Gods becomes a slightly lumbering road book, a shaggy-god story that never quite achieves the delirious escape velocity of works like The Stand, Peter Straub’s Mr. X, or Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, With Occasional Music. The most successful, and clever, segment centers on Shadow’s winter sojourn in the little Wisconsin town of Lakeside, a deceptively idyllic place that owes as much to Shirley Jackson as it does to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.
But Shadow leaves Lakeside to join the pop Götterdämmerung scheduled to take place in—where else?—Rock City. As in The Sandman, Gaiman makes sly good use of his extensive knowledge of and delight in mass culture; when Shadow wonders why Disneyland isn’t the locus of American myth, Wednesday tells him, “No magic there of any kind. . . . But some parts of Florida are filled with real magic. You just have to keep your eyes open. Ah, for the mermaids of Weeki Wachee.” Later, Shadow asks the Budweiser-drinking shaman Whiskey Jack if he is a god.
Whiskey Jack shook his head. “I’m a culture hero,” he said. “We do the same shit gods do, we just screw up more and nobody worships us.”
But in 21st-century America, of course, we do worship them, precisely because they are fuckups, brilliant, burning out too soon and sometimes not soon enough. Think Joey Ramone, Elvis, David Koresh, and Lee Harvey Oswald. With American Gods, Neil Gaiman doesn’t join the literary pantheon of his heroes—writers like Zelazny, Thomas Pynchon, G.K. Chesterton—but he does burnish his credentials as a culture hero. And in the long run, which would you rather be—or read?