Takeaway: America is a difficult land for the gods.
American God’s is a classic postmodern fictional look at religion. All of the Gods are here. If someone once worshiped them at some point in the past, then that God is wandering around, except for the few that were killed or completely forgotten. Gods in this world rely on worship, and in modern US, that worship has mostly stopped. No one remembers the old gods any more. Some gods work as taxi drivers. An old eastern European god of death worked at a meat-packing plant. Several old fertility gods work as prostitutes. All of them are trying to squeak out a bit of worship, a little remembrance. Mostly, they just end up tricking people, stealing from them. Small things here and there, shorting the waitress $10 at dinner or talking their way into a free room at the hotel.
Shadow is the main character. He is an ex-con, a want-to-be good guy, that only got involved in a crime because he was trying to help out his wife. He served his time and was a model prisoner. But the day before he was released, he finds out his wife has died in a car accident. He gets out early to attend the funeral. Along the way he meets Mr Wednesday, who offers him a job. Once once home, Shadow realizes that all his plans are gone. His wife is dead, his original job is gone, he has nothing. So he accepts the job, protecting and working for Mr Wednesday.
Gaiman is following along with a number of books recently that are exploring old mythology. American Gods has been out for over a decade now so it was at the head of the trend. I first read American Gods about six or seven years ago, it was the first Neil Gaiman book I read. Other authors have explored similar areas, but Gaiman is a master. Few can write like he can, few have that subtile humor, just enough mythology to make it believable and just enough modern sensibility to make it sing.
The conflict of the book is between the old god and the new gods. The new American Gods are those of technology, television, internet, transportation. The worship of time, money, energy has empowered these new gods try to get rid of the old gods. Gaiman likes the old, the fantastical and weak magical forces. None of the gods are omniscient or all-powerful. They are really just humans with a few extra powers and a few extra weaknesses. Even the new gods are not nearly as powerful as they think they are. They are still dependent on the old rules and the need for worship. They are just as afraid they will be replaced or forgotten as the old gods are.
Gaiman is a classic story-teller. His stories do not alway make complete sense as they go along. There are times when a couple of contradictory ideas are being held onto at the same time. But that is not a problem for Gaiman, just keep reading and things will work themselves out, or sometimes they will not.
If I were a good Christian book blogger I might spend more time exploring the way Gaiman deal with themes of power, sacrifice and worship. These really are important to the book. There is even a sacrificial scene that is reminiscent of the crucifixion (although I think it is intended to be more like old traditional animal sacrifice than the actual crucifixion.) I bring this up more as a warning to those that are easily offended. I think Gaiman has some interesting perspectives on what worship really is about and how power and sacrifice interact with one another.
There are Christians that will be offended by this book. Even though the book is about the gods, in the end, it affirms that the real power is with the worshiper, not the worshiped. For Gaiman the worshiped is created by the worshiper. That obviously is not a Christian perspective. But it is an understandable perspective from a post-modern author and I think that we can use that perspective to help us as Christians look at our own worship to see if we really are trying to create God after our own image.
Purchase Link Notes: I have both read and listened to the original version. I have not read the 10th Anniversary edition. The 10th Anniversary edition has 12,000 extra words and a new introduction. Reviews I have seen suggest that if you have own it already, there is no reason to buy the new version. But if you have not purchased the original, you should get the new version. If you are getting the audiobook version, get the new one, because it is a full cast production, not just a single narrator.