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2015/06/28

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

by John Bloner, Jr.


In Wisconsin, where I live, we have our legends: in Rhinelander, there's the green, lizard-like beast, the Hodag, covered in white horns. In Elkhorn, the werewolf known as Beast of Bray Road. The Menominees speak of the little people of the forest, the Mimakwiskwuk, who make carvings in rocks. And, of course, many know of the exploits of Paul Bunyan and Babe, The Blue Ox.

But we don't have our gods, like the Greeks and Romans have had for eons; that is, until English author Neil Gaiman came to America, got a taste of the upper Midwest, and penned his fourth novel, American Gods. The book is a road-movie, of sorts, in text instead of moving pictures, as it follows the main character, Shadow Moon, and the mysterious Mr. Wednesday--a flesh-and-blood incarnation of a Norse god--around the USA and into haunts you won't find on a map.

American Gods author, Neil Gaiman
As the novel begins, Shadow is released from prison and soon finds that the world he thought was waiting for him on the outside is gone. His wife has died in a car accident. His friend, who owned a gym where Shadow had hoped to reclaim his old job, was driving the automobile. The best and only good thing about prison, Shadow had thought, was that you could not fall down any further. You were already at the bottom. Over the course of the novel, Shadow learns what Dante finds in the Inferno.

There are a lot of levels in hell.


American Gods follows the construct of the Hero's Journey, in which a character is thrust out of his ordinary world--in Shadow's case, the familiarity of prison life--into a life that vividly contrasts with what he has known and believed. In the novel's first chapter, the reader learns that "Shadow was not superstitious. He did not believe in anything he could not see." Yet within this same chapter, Shadow is visited by something that "wore a buffalo's head, rank and furry with huge wet eyes. Its body was a man's body, oiled and slick."

Buffalo Man by Enoa79
The buffalo man provides clues for Shadow to chew on. He's not ready to digest them right away. "Changes are coming," he tells him. "If you are to survive, you must believe . . . Everything."

Shadow doesn't know what to believe. His beloved wife is gone. He has no real home to return to. Even when he tries to get there by plane, his flight is diverted by storms. He doesn't comprehend it yet, but he's running through an elaborate maze that contains portals to a fourth dimension.

The buffalo man prepares the way for Shadow to meet Mister Wednesday. Wednesday is an old god, but he's also a coyote trickster, a horny goat, and the White Rabbit of Lewis Carroll's tale, leading Shadow to adventure.

When Shadow settles into a connecting flight, this man in his pale suit is already in his seat beside Shadow. "You're late," he says. Then, the plane takes off and down the rabbit hole they go.

White Rabbit by Reaper Neko
If America hasn't had its gods like the Greeks or Romans, it has put something else in their place to worship: kitsch. As a young boy, my parents pulled me and my sisters around the country in their station wagon and Shasta travel trailer (with wings on both sides). I was about five years old when Burma-Shave signs disappeared from U.S. motorways, and with it the last dose of poetry the common man would encounter on the family vacation, but roadside placards still bore (and continue to bear) announcements for House on the Rock, a tourist attraction in Spring Green, built over decades by Alex Jordan, Jr., complete with a sea monster, coin-operated Victorian music, theater organs, the world's largest cannon, and a mammoth carousel.

Early in their travels, Mister Wednesday takes Shadow and two other men to House on the Rock, telling him, "This is a roadside attraction. One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power." They travel through the House's many rooms until they reach the merry-go-round in the cherub room. The carousel is a monstrously-sized amusement ride with over 260 animals and 20,000 lights. Another character in the novel describes it as "a prayer wheel going around and around. Accumulating power." All Shadow knows is that it makes him happy. He's filled with nostalgia, remembering a day from his childhood when he rode on another carousel in Golden Gate Park. All is bliss until the lights go out, and as Gaiman tells us, "Shadow saw the gods."

He's passed through a portal. Things are about to get weird(er).

Neil Gaiman rides the carousel at House on The Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin
Some of my favorite moments in American Gods, however, are the mundane ones and take place in the fictional Wisconsin small town of Lakeside (rather than its real-life counterpart). To put this town on a map, I relied on the research of blogger and librarian, Nathaniel Grey, who speculates that one likely location is in Oneida County, Wisconsin.

Shadow arrives by Greyhound bus in Lakeside at Christmastime and is befriended almost immediately by an old man, Hinzelmann, of seemingly good nature, who keeps him from freezing to death in the subzero temperatures of Northern Wisconsin and escorts him to his new apartment. Gaiman writes that this character has "the face of a man who has sipped life's vinegar and found it, by and large to be mostly whiskey, and good whiskey at that." Lakeside and its populace seems like an idyllic place--a Mayberry, of sorts--but appearances are deceiving in American Gods.

The pin marks the spot--or maybe not--of the location of the fictional town of Lakeside, Wisconsin
American Gods may be read as an urban fantasy. Author Joanna Penn says of the genre, "The way I conceptualize urban fantasy is magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm."  When we're introduced to Shadow, we find a character who only believes in what is in front of him. Once he's released from jail, all he wants is to return home to his wife and take up his old job at the gym. Instead, "magic and weird stuff" creep into his life and into our imaginations.

Gaiman's story may also be read as a poem to a lost America. Leave it to a Brit to capture a country's essence as it existed long ago when baby boomers were still babies, kids and teens. American Gods takes its readers across the United States, including to the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states in Lebanon, Kansas.

Photo of Lebanon, Kansas by Michael6076
When I was less than 10 years old, stuck in the back of my parents' station wagon, sandwiched between two older sisters and headed south from Wisconsin to Florida each February during layoff time at my dad's factory job, we traversed not only the highways but also the back roads of areas where the interstate system had not yet been built. Along these roads of Kentucky and Tennessee, we witnessed many barn roofs that were painted with a call to "See Rock City." These advertisements were not just placed in the immediate vicinity of Chattanooga, Tennessee, home to the ancient rock formations and gardens of Rock City atop Lookout Mountain. No, these three simple words, "See Rock City," could be seen as far north as Michigan and south as Texas.

My parents' frugal ways prohibited us from actually seeing if Rock City itself could live up its claim to be the 8th wonder of the world. Even if we had spent some time there, I suspect it may have disappointed, given our anticipation.

Like House on the Rock in Wisconsin, Rock City in Tennessee serves as a critical point for Gaiman's story, a gathering of the gods, old and new, with a score to settle.

Photo: imgbuddy.com
Neither his audience or Gaiman himself can get enough of American Gods. A few years after the release of his novel, he released the novella, Monarch of the Glen, a sequel, albeit a short one. In 2011, his publisher released an expanded edition of the book. At that same time, he told Kelly Faircloth, in an i09 interview, "I'm starting to look right now at what I want to do and how I'm going to approach another volume of American Gods. I think it's time for that story, for me to think about continuing it." His most recent collection of stories, Trigger Warning, contains the tale "Black Dog," following Shadow through England. In addition, Starz cable network is preparing a television series based on American Gods, with a premiere date anticipated in late 2016.

While rereading the novel to write this article, I listened simultaneously to its audiobook, narrated by George Guidall, and enjoyed the leisure of listening to him bring alive the voices and places of the book. It's a slower route to take in a novel--Evelyn Wood would shake her head--but oftentimes the slow way turns out to be the best way.

Artwork by Erik Evensen

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