Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

American Gods.

It should come as a surprise to exacly no one that when I was in college, I broke in my brand new credit card, my first ever credit card, buying Alice Walker books at Malaprops, a feminist bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. I walked out, happy with my newly acquired debt, carrying a plastic sack with The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and Meridian inside it. What is surprising, at least to me, is that these books sat on my shelf, unopened and unread, for almost 15 years.

One day last year I picked up Meridian out of guilt. And I loved it. It was one of the best stories I had read in a long time, and definitely the best I'd read that year.

"Can you believe it took me so long to read this story?" I said to Frog. "I feel really kind of dumb for letting a book this good sit on my shelf unread for so long."

"Well, you know, books are like that," said Frog. "Sometimes you just can't read them until you're ready. And when you're ready for them, they're great."

The same thing happened with Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Steve bought it for me as an anniversary present the year it was published (2001, by William Morrow, imprint of Harper Collins) and I was excited to get it, being a fan of the Sandman and all. I'd been to two (I think) of his readings at Alice Bentley's sorely missed, now defunct science fiction bookstore The Stars Our Destination, and couldn't wait to sit down and read his latest. Four years later it was still sitting there. And just like Frog said, one day last month it seemed to stand out more and more on the bookshelf, asserting itself in front of the others until I had no choice but to pick it up.

I brought it with me on a recent trip doing research on the Lincoln Highway, The United States' first transcontinental highway. I'd made a trip covered approximately half of Route 66 a couple of years ago with Steve, making the journey the destination, and pulling over and examining every roadside attraction along the way. Sometimes the roadside attractions were good, like when we found a very old beekeeper selling jawdroppingly good lavender honey out of the back of her truck, and sometimes jawdroppingly bad, where for the same price as the honey we toured a "petrified tree forest," which turned out to be gigantic piles of crumbled white rocks in a dusty red dirt lot. I love these homages to the open road, these little entrepreneurial testaments to the drawing power of the highway, where anyone can sell anything to anybody driving though. The freedom of the open road is the greatest representation of the spirit of America to me, and the roadside attractions built up beside it are churches honoring that spirit.

American Gods was the perfect book to bring along on a trip like this. The protagonist, 32-year-old ex-con Shadow Moon, whose corny name probably didn't help him in prison any, is paroled early to attend the funeral of his wife, Laura. On the plane ride back home, he is offered a job by a mysterious man named Wednesday. Shadow, whose plans for the future had all been destroyed by Laura's death, agrees to work for Wednesday, in what he believes to be as a sort of personal bodyguard for an old grifter. As it turns out, Wednesday, like most of what's going on in the book, is more that he appears to be. Wednesday, and all of his cronies that Shadow meets, are ancient gods brought to America by the faith of immigrants over the centuries. As more focus and worship is paid to the miracles of modern life - media, superhighways, and the internet - the less power the gods have over human life. As Shadow gets drawn further and further into protecting the gods, he discovers that a large battle is looming over the soul of humanity; a battle between the old gods and the new.
Shadow and Wednesday move from place to place travelling on old, forgotten highways because, Wednesday says, we're not sure whose side the interstates are on. The meeting places of the gods, quite reasonably, are roadside attractions, where human beings are inexplicably drawn to participate in events. When they leave, Gaiman writes, they aren't sure whether they've enjoyed themselves or not.

Gaiman has written a compelling story tackling ominous themes with his trademark gentle darkness, writing about the struggle for the American soul, religious power against scientific power, and which religion? Which science?

Plus, it may be my partisan slip showing, but American Gods seemed to be making subtle commentary on the dishonesty inherent in American politics in general, as well.

American Gods is one of three books in recent memory that have managed to irritate total strangers on first sight, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell being one because it was too long and should not be read by anyone who was not being forced to, and Gwendolyn Zepeda's To the Last Man I Slept With and All the Other Jerks Just Like Him (title) being the other two.

"Is that a book about Jesus?" asked the man sitting next to me at the counter in a cafe in Ashton, Illinois a block off the Lincoln Highway.

"No. It's about six foot tall bar-brawling drunken leprauchauns," I said.

"Huh," he said, and turned back to his coffee cup. I turned back to the book.

When I reached the point of the Lincoln Highway where Route 66 intersected with it, I got out of the car to look around. If the roads are the spirit of American Freedom, this must be the holiest place around. There were no roadside attractions, just a lone sign marking the historical site. I closed my eyes and tried to let the spirit in. I didn't feel anything at all.

American Gods was a Nebula Award finalist and a Hugo Award Winner.

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