I haven’t read American Gods in probably 15 years or more, and yet, for all of these years, I’ve held it as one of my favorite books, and perhaps Neil Gaiman’s best work – no small praise, that. And any time you remember a book that fondly, there’s always the worry that you’re wrong, that you’ve overestimated it somehow, or have papered over the flaws in your mind. And so, as I sat down to re-read it recently (inspired by, in no real order, texts from a friend who was reading it for the first time, the upcoming Starz series, and the fact that I owned – but hadn’t read – the revised, “preferred” text), I couldn’t help but wonder: what if it wasn’t as good as I remembered?
I needn’t have worried. Not only is American Gods every bit as good as I remembered, it was more – richer, more thoughtful, more elegant, more magical, and just plain better. (And not all of that, if any, is because of the “preferred text,” which feels more like a series of small restorations rather than any major one or two.)
But in its general shape, American Gods couldn’t be simpler. It’s the story of Shadow, a man recently released from prison, and the friendship – of sorts – he strikes up with a man named Mr. Wednesday. It doesn’t take long for Shadow to realize that Mr. Wednesday isn’t anything as simple as he pretends to be, and that there’s more to Wednesday – and maybe the world – than he’s ever realized. And yes, as the title implies, Shadow learns of gods living in America – the gods of immigrants, of Vikings, of Egyptians, of Russians, and of more, all of whom brought their gods with them, and left them in America.
And to be honest, that’s most of the plot. Shadow gets involved with Wednesday, who is rallying the old gods – ancient, mythological gods – against new American gods of Media, of Technology, hoping to inspire them to battle back. But to focus too much on the plot of American Gods is to miss the point. This is a book about the world Gaiman has created, and more than that, in many ways, it’s a book about America – albeit a view of America that could only come from the perspective of an immigrant who both loves the country and is somewhat baffled by it. It’s an America filled with odd roadside attractions, where faith is both constant and fickle, where immigrants brush against each other without a second thought, with odd traditions that no one remembers and a land that’s older than the nation that lives there. And in many ways, through his eyes and vision, Gaiman captures America more accurately and more honestly than any less fictional, more “factual” perception ever could.
But more than that, American Gods works because it plays to Gaiman’s strengths: it creates a magical, alternate version of our own world, one where magic is real, where belief has consequences, where ritual becomes bond, and where gods exist, and brings it to life so real that you can lose yourself. It’s why the book works in spite of – maybe even because of – its loose plotting; it’s a book that lives and breathes, and whose wanderings only fill in the shadows and corners of this strange place. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a version of this book without the odd short stories of other gods, or the conversations about faith and history, or the descriptions of odd, inexplicable American landmarks. More accurately, it’s impossible to imagine a version of this book without those things that still works like this one does – that still creates such a vivid world, such a perfect and magical reflection of America that’s both profoundly strange and yet instantly recognizable for what it is.
And that, more than anything else, is why I love this book so much. I love its ideas, and its characters, and its glimpses of a world beyond our own; I love its sense of magic that infiltrates our own, and its sense of history that we can’t ever escape. But more than that, I just love living in this book and with these characters – seeing the things we see, dipping our toes into the strange world Gaiman has created, and experiencing his boundless, staggering imagination, even if only for 5oo pages.