I was looking for some light reading on a lazy All Saint’s Day afternoon when I chanced upon my daughter’s copy of Neil Geiman’s novel, American Gods. Neil Geiman is famous for his graphic novels (better known as comic books or “komics” during an earlier and more innocent age), particularly the Sandman series . I had previously read an earlier Geiman novel (written with Terry Pratchett), Good Omens, which had its good parts but was unexceptional overall.
American Gods is an altogether different enchilada. I’m three-fourths through the book and have been bowled over by the characters and the plot. Its part thriller, part horror-story, part adventure/quest.
Geiman’s protagonist, Shadow, in the best noir tradition, is a hard-boiled but thoughtful loner thrust into a series of unexpected and violent situations, involving the death of his wife and his encounters with a plethora of colorful deities, once powerful gods and godlings who are in danger being obliterated due to the waning faith of their believers and the rise of the new gods of television and the internet. Shadow takes an epic journey into the American heartland and a melting-pot mythology shaped by generations of immigrants. Its like a gothic Tom Robbins novel, only darker and more gruesome.
Geiman’s writing reminds me of Haruki Murakami. Like in a Murakami narrative, things are not what they seem on the surface. There is an undercurrent of danger in the most commonplace events. The Murakami protagonist, alienated, lonely and scared but determined to fight and prevail, describes Shadow as well. Surreal, funny and chilling, this novel gives Murakami a run for his money.
For me, it is in his description of small-town life at the fringe of the great American highways that Geiman really nails it. There is even a Brokeback moment involving two lonesome, transplanted souls in New York City. An old story, but Geiman gives it a new twist.
For a taste of Geiman’s jottings, check out his Halloween essay published in the New York Times issue of 31 October 2003, an excerpt of which is reproduced below:
And then there was the one who said, in her cellphone’s voicemail message, sounding amused as she said it, that she was afraid she had been murdered, but to leave a message and she would get back to us.
It wasn’t until we read the news, several days later, that we learned that she had indeed been murdered, apparently randomly and quite horribly.
But then she did get back to each of the people who had left her a message. By phone, at first, leaving cellphone messages that sounded like someone whispering in a gale, muffled wet sounds that never quite resolved into words.
Eventually, of course, she will return our calls in person.