Reading Neil Gaiman can cause you to alter your behavior. Ever since reading Gaiman's classic comic book series, THE SANDMAN --- I can't remember exactly which of the early issues it was, #2 or #4 maybe --- where he took one of DC's really bad comic book bad guys and turned him loose in a diner and...well, I don't sit with my back to the door anymore.
Gaiman has been doing more with novels than with comic books lately, demonstrating along the way that he can pretty well work in any media that he pleases and almost instantly be better than anyone else. He demonstrates this again with AMERICAN GODS.
AMERICAN GODS is going to alter behaviors. It will get people who haven't been reading much lately reading again. It will inspire would-be writers to blow the dust off of those spiral notebooks or open up the laptop and give it a shot; Gaiman makes producing incredible, groundbreaking work look all so easy. At the same time, those of us who have been trying to put something together in bits and pieces will give up after reading AMERICAN GODS; I mean, what's the point? No one will ever come up with anything this good again. AMERICAN GODS, in our own humble age, is a bona fide classic, a book that people will be giving each other in leather-bound editions 20, 30 years from now.
America is the land of second chances. And third, fourth, and fifth chances, too, if you play things right. You can invent and reinvent yourself, more than once or twice. Shadow is about to find this out. Shadow has been doing time in prison, counting the days until he gets out, gets back to his beautiful, too good to be true wife Laura, and back to his old job, which his best friend is holding for him. Everything he is waiting for, however, is swept away in an instant on the eve of his release. On his way home from prison, Shadow meets an enigmatic grifter who calls himself Mr. Wednesday and who seems to know all-too-much about Shadow. When Wednesday offers Shadow a job, he reluctantly accepts; he has nothing left to lose. His employment leads to a wild night's ride that continues for months, a road trip across the heart, land, and soul of America, off the beaten path and into the rough, "behind the curtain," if you will, where the audience never goes and really does not belong. Shadow learns that everyone, from Wednesday to his wife Laura to himself, has secrets, and that some secrets need to be revealed and others are better buried forever. What is more significant, however, is that Wednesday is leading Shadow into the midst of the ending of a conflict that predates humanity and which may result in an outcome without a winner. Along the way, Shadow --- and the reader --- is shown an America that is readily familiar but at the same time disturbingly alien. This is the America that lurks underneath the billboards for roadside attractions, at the woods edge, at the rest stop, the one at the edge of your visual periphery, more sensed than seen.
Gaiman quite modestly acknowledges other authors who, he says, tackled the themes of AMERICAN GODS before he ever got to them. Gaiman not only tackles the themes --- the unseen seen, the players and movers and shakers behind the curtains --- but brings them down. There are also nods to Gaiman's comic book background: a quick tribute to Frank Miller's RONIN and one of Marvel's most enduring books; and Gaiman's narrative flows so well that I could almost see his tale as sequential art, panel for panel, as it unfolded. And when I finished I was left with the urge, still with me as I write this, to hop into my car and motor west and south, looking for the Rock House and Mr. Wednesday and Easter and Low-Key and hoping that I would not find them. AMERICAN GODS, simply put, is a masterpiece. You're gonna love it and never forget it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 20, 2011