Like I said last week, every civilization develops its own mythology to answer its questions and confront its fears. As the needs of the culture change, so change the heroes we worship. So, what happens to the older gods when these newer icons are developed? Do they resent being forced into retirement or do they transcend to a Sun City section of Mount Olympus where they can play endless rounds of shuffleboard and bore each other with photos of their descendants? Did Odin develop a sub-section of Valhalla to house superannuated deities? Is there an AARP for Gods? You might think that’s a funny idea for a story but it’s actually a question Neil Gaiman posed when he wrote American Gods. It’s also an English novelist’s perspective of America and a brilliant fantasy novel.
At the center of the story is Shadow Moon, a man with a past who once thought he had a future. Instead, his wife and secure job die shortly before he can reach them and a man named Wednesday offers him work. Shadow is the perfect hero for this kind of adventure: he’s quiet, tough and shrewder than most folks realize. Shadow is the kind of man Bogart played in the movies but he isn’t fighting the standard cops or robbers. Instead, he and his new boss embark on a road trip filled with fights, kidnap and intrigue and they keep running into the oddest people. Hey, it’s what you’ve got to expect when you go to work for an Ancient God.
Because Mr. Wednesday is a God or at least an American version of one. Gaiman’s underlying idea is that when immigrants flooded what is now the U. S., they brought the old deities with them. This might have worked for a generation or two but a New Country worships different things and the New Gods have taken over. Odin and Ibis have been replaced by Tech Boy (the quintessential computer geek complete with a Matrix coat and bad acne) and Media, a Lucy Ricardo goddess who can be truly terrifying. There are lots of other super-beings, both old and new, and half of the fun of this book is realizing which one of the odd-balls is really a deity in retirement. Thing is, Mr. Wednesday wants the Old Ones to band together and kick the New Gods out of existence. Shadow’s job in this mess is to sort out who the real good and bad guys are and stop the carnage before it’s too late.
Yes, most of the characters in the tale are used to being worshipped but Shadow is the quintessential American Archetype of a Hero: he’s the loner who adheres to no moral code save his own and he’s on an unforgiving road to redemption. This hero never asks much for himself; instead others end up requesting his help. When he tries to give it to them, he’s often forced to break rules in order to do what’s right. This guy’s the outsider who takes on the corrupt political machine, the reporter or lawyer who won’t give up on a cause. If you like cowboys, Shadow is like Shane. If detective stories are your thing, think Sam Spade. Shadow is one of these lonely guy/heroes and we’re lucky he has a sense of humor as well as sense because we see what happens through his eyes.
A word to parents: although this is by the man that wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book, American Gods is not for kids. It’s a huge, adult fantasy that snapped up some big time awards and now Starz is bringing the story to film. It’s a big read, and a worthwhile one, but it’s a fantasy novel for adults. Catch my drift? I hope so.
This country has never been a place that likes to slow down. Americans are always searching for the Next Big Thing. So maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective, a smart person willing to watch, like de Tocqueville or Gaiman, to give us a good analysis of our own culture. It’s not an easy task because we’re the result of a billion different influences and, like I said, we tend to keep moving. But, whatever our faults, we’re a dynamic society where there’s still room for opportunity. As long as that’s true, we’ll remain the Goldene Medina for immigrants. Even Immigrant Gods.