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Books: American Gods

Have you ever finished a book and immediately thought "Man, I want to read that again!" That's not how I felt after reading American Gods, the Hugo award winning book from Neil Gaimen. Instead, I though "I should read that book again -- because I wasn't really paying that much attention the first time".

Although this is the first Gaiman novel I've read, I owned and enjoyed the entire run of Sandman back in the day. Based on that, I kind of knew what I was getting into: something mystical, something humorous, something with great ideas to spare. And American Gods is all of these things, no doubt about it. But it still failed to really grip me like I wanted it to.

Our protagonist is Shadow, a man released from prison only to discover that he has nothing to return to. Now direction-less, he is immediately enlisted up by a couple of guys who may be grifters or ancient gods or both. One of them, Mr. Wednesday, claims a huge, metaphysical shitstorm is coming, and needs help with some logistical details; seeking funds and a purpose, Shadow swears allegiance to Wednesday and soon finds himself enmeshed in a theological scrimmage.

American Gods reads a lot like Stephen King's early stuff, and I mean that as a compliment. (Snobs like to dismiss King's work as pedestrian, but there's no doubt that the guy is eminently readable). But like King (and Tolkien, for that matter), Gaimen tends to be a bit prolix -- at 600 pages, this book should have been two-thirds as long, perhaps halved. It starts out slow, then picks up steam, then goes into a 150-page holding pattern about halfway through. Although intermittently riveting, it took me weeks to get from one end of the book to the other. Part of the problem was my schedule (my stint on jury duty was going on at the time, leaving me intellectually exhausted every evening), but some of the blame must be attributed to American Gods' sheer verbosity.

This would have been a perfect vacation book, something to devour over a few airplane rides when you have no alternative (except SkyMall) to soldiering on through the dry patches. And although I found myself vaguely disappointed at not being fully engaged, I could see myself reading it again at some future date when I have the mental resources to give it my full attention. As it stands, I recommend American Gods to those who have the time and wherewithal to read 600 pages of book to enjoy and darned good 400-page story.

Posted on November 06, 2002 to Books


neverwhere is a far better effort by gaiman in terms of writing style and, imho, a better story.

love your site. you crack me up.

Posted by: tim on November 6, 2002 4:40 PM

also try "GOOD OMENS" by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. absolutely hilarious and easy to read as well.

Posted by: adam on November 6, 2002 7:47 PM

Though I'm always happy to hear that people are picking up books that are Hugo award winners, I'm kinda nonplussed by the number of people announcing that they've recently finished American Gods. The book was originally published last year, and made it into paperback in April 2002 (yoinks! Fast turnaround for someone of Gaiman's stature). Why are people only now finishing it up? (Well, not you, Mr. Yeti Sir, we realize you have other important pursuits at hand.)

I must confess, though, I just don't get Gaiman's popularity. My first exposure to Gaiman was when he was the guest speaker at Norwescon a few years ago. I had no idea who he was, and watching a bunch of Goths fawn over him and ask fanboy questions didn't help much (not that I'm devoid of fanboy fawning myself, but if you're not privy to the source material, it just leaves an icky aftertaste). So I didn't read anything of his until someone gave me the Sandman comic collection recently.

Good stuff, I'll admit. Then I realized that I'd read Good Omens several years earlier when I was on a Pratchett kick. But I still think Good Omens was enjoyable because of Pratchett, not Gaiman.

Still, the comic that Scott McCloud did as recompense for contributing to his site ("Why I'm Not Neil Gaiman") is pretty damned funny.

Wow, who woulda thought I had all that in me? I'm going to go be reclusive some more now.

Posted by:
Eric on November 6, 2002 9:02 PM

I recently read Neverwhere and American Gods back to back. My conclusion was that Neverwhere should have been the length of American Gods and vice versa. There was so much more to be explored in Neverwhere, and a little too much sitting around in American Gods.

Ah well, what do I know; I can't even write a decent short story. ;)

Posted by: wink on November 6, 2002 11:52 PM

"The book was originally published last year, and made it into paperback in April 2002 (yoinks! Fast turnaround for someone of Gaiman's stature). Why are people only now finishing it up?"

Oh man. I read The Canterbury Tales in 1995. Boy was I late to that party.

Posted by: kf on November 7, 2002 11:09 AM

American Gods was the first of Gaiman's prose works that I thought was even close to as good as Sandman. Neverwhere struck me as an extended in-joke about the London subway system that I had no hope of ever really "getting" and Good Omens was cute but not nearly as funny as some people think it is. My impression is that Gaiman did one excelnent piece work, which is the reason people worship him, and he has spent the rest of his career either coasting on it or living in its shadow, depending on how charitable you are.

Posted by: Jerry Kindall on November 10, 2002 2:59 PM