Reading “American Gods”: The Longest Road Trip Ever

This past month I finally read a Neil Gaiman novel. I’ve been wanting to read his work forever, as he’s a sort of mythic figure in nerd culture for his comic books, his work on Doctor Who, and his fantastical stories and books. I know a lot of people who are huge fans, so hearing that his novel American Gods was being made into a Starz TV series, I settled in to explore what might be the most famous work from Gaiman.

American Gods poses a fascinating idea: What if pagan gods were trying to survive in modern-day America? Immigrants would bring their beliefs from their original countries to the United States, and the gods would survive through people’s belief — however long that lasts.

So what if the goddess Bilquis (the Queen of Sheba) — a divine being who eats men alive as they worship her during lovemaking — lived in the United States today? And how would the ancient Egyptian gods fare, if they made their livings as modern undertakers? The idea that their enemies would be today’s media and technology — the things we American are currently obsessed with — manifests into exactly those kinds of new gods, like Media and the Technical Boy. So a war is brewing between the old gods and the new.

That’s the premise of this novel. The plot is a little harder to define.

We follow Shadow, an ex-con just out of prison who learns that his wife Laura has just died. She comes to him frequently, as a sort of ghost. He thinks he’s going crazy. But being aimless without her, he embarks on a road trip with new employers, including Mr. Wednesday who turns out to be an old god. (I had to look up the origin of the weekday Wednesday to learn which god he represents.) As they travel across the U.S., Shadow meets gods all over the place.

 

It’s an amazing idea for a story, but its delivery is sort of like being locked up in a car on just this sort of road trip, with a lot of long-winded people.

i love lucyLet me preface this by saying I liked Shadow — he’s quiet, honest despite his past, and curious without being overly eager. I listened to the audiobook version, and he always sounded soft-spoken and sturdy. He casually learns coin tricks from the gods. He makes friends with cops and gods and cons alike. He has drinks with anybody, without passing judgment — although he finds it messed up when Wednesday hits on a 16-year-old girl, and he doesn’t really want to see Lucille Ball’s tits when Media offers to show them to him. He takes long walks in the freezing cold just to get away, to think.

Shadow is somebody you don’t mind being with, whether you’re talking or just enjoying the scenery in silence. He clearly loves and misses his wife, and the sequences where he sees her or remembers being with her were some of the most poignant parts of the book. He’s also a lot more level-headed than the gods he’s around, acting as a sort of grounded, human voice of reason some of the time. So hanging with him on this road trip wasn’t so bad.

But the other characters are all over the place, and while some are fascinating to meet — especially Bilquis who I mentioned before — you spend very little time with most of them. Mr. Wednesday occupies the most space as Shadow spends his days traveling with him. Meanwhile, the occasional out-of-place scene depicts another god, who you may not have met yet, and then leaves them there to return to Shadow. There are also storybook scenes (narrated by Neil Gaiman himself in the audiobook) which show the gods arriving in America in the past. Some of these sequences I enjoyed hearing. But they can be jarring, because they are one-off scenes that remove the reader from Shadow’s story, sometimes for long spells. It felt like they didn’t quite belong there. While I understand this is a story about gods — lots of gods — I guess I prefer less jumping around and dislocation.

american gods 2
Illustration by Dave McKean

And that’s my biggest problem with this novel. At over 18 hours of audiobook time, it’s a wheezing giant of a story, which in my opinion doesn’t even have much of a story. As much as I liked Shadow, I never felt overly connected to him, and I certainly didn’t relate to the gods I encountered. Maybe that’s the nature of the book’s concept — being thrown into a story about a bunch of gods means you’re going to feel pretty detached. And if that’s the case, maybe this just isn’t my kind of story.

The dry writing doesn’t help. Obviously Gaimain is a talented storyteller, but he writes a very particular kind of story in a very straightforward manner. There’s only occasionally real poetry to the prose, while there are plenty of cliches, or phrases I’ve heard before. I kept wanting to hear something truly profound, but the revelatory moments and true reveals are wedged into the last hour of the book. I’ll admit, I really liked how it ended — I just wish I had more to engage with for the first 90% of the book. I think you just have to appreciate the simplicity of the way Gaimain tells this epic story, and accept that things will be slow at times, confusing at others, and crazy always.

Despite not really enjoying the process of listening to this book, I find myself remembering a few key scenes in vivid detail. Gaiman is a magician at coming up with bizarre scenes and small stories that just stick with you. Like Media taking over Lucille Ball on Shadow’s TV screen and talking right to him through the set. Or Bilquis devouring a man during sex. Or Mr. Wednesday telling Shadow about the fiddle game, one of the cons he runs. Or Shadow walking in below-freezing temperatures until a cop picks him up, and he can’t even get a word out of his mouth because he’s freezing shut.

American Gods is like a premise that never quite became a plot. It’s a meditation on its themes. There’s a war between the old gods and the new, but this is just hinted at for most of the story. It’s more of a road trip book, like On the Road but with characters I personally didn’t relate to as well, scenes that pulled me away from the main story, and frankly a lot less action. That’s why, while I appreciate the overarching concept Gaiman came up with here, reading the story was a tedious affair for me. Maybe I should have just settled in for a long ride, but instead I kept hoping for something to happen — some action, some insight, something big. It took too long to get there.

That said, I am glad I pushed myself to finish reading the book, because it is obviously so well-loved and respected by so many. And so much of the weirdness Gaiman throws at the reader is unforgettable; even not loving the book, I’ll always remember those crazy scenes, which is proof the book is something special.

I’m very curious to watch the Starz show and see if it brings some of the story to life for me. If you’ve read the book or watched the show, I’d love to hear your thoughts, too!

— Ashley

15 thoughts on “Reading “American Gods”: The Longest Road Trip Ever”

  1. I would agree, I found this slow going for a while but it really picks up towards the end. It’s the characters that did it for me though. They’re all interesting and well fleshed out. Their motivations as they’re relevance shifts throughout their existence is interesting to explore.
    I will add that I listened to the audiobook rather than read this (time is a valuable commodity!) and I love how Wednesday was read throughout it.

    1. Yes I totally agree about Wednesday’s voice actor! I listened to the audiobook on my commute, and I would rate that part of things really high. It was a great cast. Cool to hear you listened to it that way too! Hmm, I know what you mean about the characters, although I didn’t engage with them. I think I was expecting to, but seeing as this is a book about gods, maybe I was a little off there! Otherwise I totally agree they are really interesting and fleshed out, and just the whole idea of placing them in today’s world is so awesome.

  2. Yeah, I was pretty much in the same boat. I’d heard loads of people banging on about Gaiman, so I gave this a try, and I just found it really heavy going for ages. It prob’ly didn’t help that I’d accidentally picked up the “author’s preferred version”, which meant it went on for a couple of hundred pages *more* than normal (and, in the process, proved the value of a good editor), but it didn’t really do much for me.

    I read “Neverwhere” afterwards though, and that was a lot better, I thought – and I think it was a waaaay better example of why people really like Gaiman.

    1. Interesting. It’s good to hear I am not the only one who thought this way! Yeah, I listened to the unabridged version, I wonder if that’s the same as author’s preferred? It’s good to hear Neverwhere is better, because a friend recommended it to me before I ever started reading American Gods, and it’s on my list. I’ll give it a try, maybe it’ll suit me better!

  3. I haven’t actually read one of his books, but the premise of this one sounds interesting. I do like it whenever a story gets good in the end because I feel it’s important to stick the landing.

    1. Yes, it does stick the landing! It’s a great premise and definitely worth a read (or at least a try). Maybe you will be converted to his fandom! I am looking forward to watching the show and also just reading something else by Gaiman to see if I like it better than this one.

  4. I liked a lot of the ideas explored in the book. I liked the personification of the gods/seeing what they were like/who they were as they popped up. Seeing them in America today and things like Media being a modern-day god was neat. I liked Shadow a lot. I think the whole thing comes together well at the end too. It just meanders a ton on the way there. And as cool as some of the cutaways to history or the random scenes in America could be, it made it hard to really give a lot of momentum to the main story on top of it being a bit meandering on its own. Took me a while to read because of all that, but I still enjoyed it.

    1. Yeah, I listened to this audiobook on my commute, and with other books like The Handmaid’s Tale, I can’t wait to get in the car and listen to the next part. But with this one, I actually just listened to the radio or music sometimes, because I needed a break from the book, or I wasn’t that compelled to keep listening. Maybe it’s similar to you taking a while to read it. I think “meandering” is a good way to describe it! But yeah, I totally agree that the ideas are really interesting and unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s such a cool concept for a story. But like you say about the cutaways to the other gods’ stories and history, and just the pacing, it’s not the easiest book to get through. It felt great to great to get to that amazing ending though!

  5. I’ve never listened to an audiobook, so take this with a grain of salt, but I feel like Gaiman’s writing needs to be read rather than listened to to be enjoyed. I’ve read basically one thing of his in each medium — American Gods in literature, View from the Cheap Seats in nonfiction, and the first half of the Sandman omnibus in comics (ok actually i’ve also Read Marvel 1602 and Sandman: Overture by him, but I digress) — and I think his actual writing is tremendous. So hearing that you felt otherwise makes me wonder if the audiobook is why. Obviously that may not be the case, but it felt worth saying.

    That kinda dovetails with my other thoughts on your experience. The “Coming to America” and elsewhere in America chapters are less jarring when you encounter them as chapters. And the fact that they’re all standalone vignettes might make some readers choose to just skip over them for the time being and come back to them later on. I liked the way they reminded you that the gods and their stories were so much bigger than just Shadow and his employer’s journey. They expanded and improved the book for me like one-off sidequests in an RPG where you only get a snapshot into someone’s life before getting back to the main quest. Sorry they had a negative impact for you!

    That said, I think Starz is doing a good job with the book. They have those vignette moments but it looks like they’ve altered or expanded them a bit (for example, Bilquis has a much bigger role in the show, apparently). And Shadow is still great. I imagine you’ll enjoy watching it more than you enjoyed the book.

    (Side note: I definitely recommend picking up Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes if you want to give Gaiman another crack. It’s the first six issues of the long-running series, and goes a long way in explaining how he rose to prominence. Also, read/watch Coraline if you’ve not!)

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! It’s nice to hear from somebody who really loves this book. It’s interesting you mention it might be better to read rather than listen, because I was wondering if things get lost or feel less organized when listening. It’s a lot easier to miss something when I listen to an audiobook and not be able to rewind, whereas I can easily turn back a page and re-read. Also, I don’t see the chapter designations, so the vignettes feel more jarring whereas being specified as their own side chapters in the physical book might have made them more approachable, just because I’d know better what I was getting into… I don’t know. That’s a good point anyway!

      Thanks for the recommendations of more Gaiman works! I have Neverwhere but haven’t started it quite yet, and I’ll look into Sandman: Preudes & Nocturnes and Coraline now too! I haven’t seen Coraline but have heard good things.

      Also, I just watched the first episode of the show last night! I loved it. It was better than I expected, really, so I’m eager to keep watching and see how it compares. Already I “feel” how epic this story is from the show more than I did from the book, for whatever reason.

      1. Yeah, I’m really digging the show’s approach. As long as they nail the carousel and the tree scenes, I’ll be happy (though for me, my favorite aspect of the book was actually the disappearing kids side story).

  6. The premise sounds intriguing but your description of his writing does not. I’ve not read a Gaiman novel, although I have read some of his comics and seen Stardust, which is based on one of his books (and I enjoyed). The hype around American Gods is pretty huge so maybe I’ll give it a go at some point but it’s not at the top of my list now.

    1. Yeah, since this is the only Gaiman book I’ve read so far, I don’t know if this is typical of his prose style or not. I’m really curious to read something else by him soon. I didn’t realize Stardust was based on one of his books! I liked that too.

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