Reading in the Small Town America
[While Fridays are typically reserved for fairy tales, please allow this one a little leeway because it deals with mythology instead. And the occasional leprechaun.]
By way of apology for my disappearance from the blogosphere (and the unfailingly gracious compensation on LT by my lovely co-blogger KT), I will tell you that I have been on hiatus in small town America. I left the city behind me and have retreated to places of varying degrees of rural Americana and thus have been a little incommunicado. Most recently, I spent a few days at a cabin off of Cuba Lake in Cuba, NY that my grandfather actually built with his own hands. I took drives from the cabin to diners called things like “Earl’s” and the fanciest restaurants in town called things like “Moonwinks.” It was gloriously and unapologetically classic rural America and I loved it. Appropriately, I think, I spent some time on the cabin’s covered porch reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
Mr. Gaiman is no stranger to Literary Transgressions, but I still feel the need to introduce him here. He is quite simply one of the most creatively-minded authors writing today. The things he comes up with as plots and characters never fail to be utterly innovative and fascinating. In this way, he is a genius. In American Gods, Mr. Gaiman tells the story of what happens in a country of immigrants who swear they left their old beliefs and religions behind them in the Old Country, only for these beliefs to make it over to the New Country in the minds and hearts of those who remember. Thus, Mr. Gaiman sets the gods of every “old” country loose in America, where ostensibly there are no gods, only televisions, radios, highways, and mobile phones, who pass as American gods.
More minutely, American Gods is the story of a guy named Shadow and his misadventures in small-town America, which is why it felt like such an appropriate read in between diners with Heinz pourable mustard and beverages served out of a mason jars.
American Gods is an undeniably well-thought-out book. It is filled with Gaimanesque weirdness (for if you set aside the genius, Mr. Gaiman is undeniably a weird guy) and things that don’t make any sense but that Mr. Gaiman gets away with. As with his other books, the strongest part of American Gods, in my opinion, is the very notion of it. Mr. Gaiman excels at coming up with creative ideas for books, but I think the books themselves never quite measure up to the sheer brilliance of his ideas. He is a fine writer, but not mind-blowing, and his weirdness often detracts from the goodness of the plot itself. I think perhaps I am just not a Gaimaniac, since I always love the idea of his books and then am a little disappointed in the execution of them.
American Gods is just like that. I loved the idea of it and I adored the scattered mythological in-jokes (for how could a book about old world gods coming to America not have mythological in-jokes?), but there was just something missing for me. The last part of the book was definitely the strongest and most interesting, with a Norse death followed by a trip to the Egyptian underworld. The idea that these mythologies still exist is something I find ineffably comforting (but this may just be my 11-year-old self who believed in Greek mythology rejoicing that I may not be wrong) and the way in which Mr. Gaiman pulls them out and portrays them as a part of their godly selves reinvented in America is wonderful (e.g. “Mr. Ibis” is Thoth, “Mr. Nancy” is Anansi, etc.).
This book is a perfect road-trip book, something appropriate to read as you cross America or even just explore a little bit of small-town America relatively close to home. If you like Mr. Gaiman to begin with, this book will make you riotously happy since it is Gaiman at his best. If you are unsure, give American Gods a go. At the very least, you will come away with an appreciation of the idea of the old world gods living here in our simultaneously technological and rural America.