Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Which I Wish Neil Gaiman Was My BFF

Remember last week, when I said that my unread Neil Gaiman books were calling to me from my bookshelf? Well, their siren song prevailed, and in only a handful of days, I finished the 600-page American Gods. It did not disappoint.

In my opinion, Neil Gaiman is hands-down the best storyteller I've ever read. He so clearly just loves telling a story that you can't help but fall into his books with a smile on your face. Even a book that has dark moments like American Gods (and boy, does it ever have its dark moments) has the ability to grab you and not let go. I was mesmerized through the whole thing.

Now, I didn't love the book as much as the hilarious but inconsequential Good Omens or the beautiful Graveyard Book. No, this book's complicated plot and wily characters made it a little less charming and a lot more solid. But man, I still enjoyed reading this one. Sometimes, it was subtly humorous. Other times, scenes took place in a weird kind of fever dream of the fantastical. And often, the main character of Shadow broke my heart.

The book starts off right away with a pretty big bang. The mysterious but good-hearted Shadow gets out of prison a couple days earlier because his beloved wife Laura is killed in a car accident while giving a blow job to Shadow's best friend. Then, on his way to her funeral, Shadow meets the bizarre Mr. Wednesday, who right away gives Shadow a job as his "bodyguard." Eventually, Wednesday introduces Shadow to various gods and tells him a "storm" is brewing. These gods, who are basically refugees unable to survive after being brought to America by their believers, are being targeted by "new gods," gods of technology and innovation and media. From there on out, all sorts of crazy and weird shit happens.

Basically, this story has three things going at the same time. There's the stuff going on with the gods and the coming storm. Then, there's the mystery of disappearing children in the perfect little town that Wednesday hides Shadow in throughout the book. Thirdly, there's the somewhat creepy and sad story of Shadow and his wife, who comes back from the dead to visit him and occasionally rescue him. Obviously, all three of these things play into each other. But to be honest, I was much more interested in the last two plotlines than I was in the first one (you know, the one that actually gives the book its name). There are some huge plot twists in the last 200 pages or so, but because there was so much in the air, the resolution of the main story kind of left me a bit disappointed.

But while I may have found the plot a little too overcooked and ultimately unsatisfying in its climax, I still loved the book because of how wonderfully human it was. The thing I've always loved about Gaiman is his clear compassion for people and their everyday lives. Without a doubt, my favorite scenes are the ones between the dead and somewhat scary Laura and her lost widow, Shadow. While there are all sorts of themes about immigration and America and belief in this book, it was the theme of redemption I found the most consistently heartbreaking. Shadow might end up having been misled throughout the book by the people he meets, but he's still a good person. And in the end, he gets to redeem himself and learn some lessons. He doesn't get a happy ending by any means; but he doesn't necessarily get a bad one either. Laura also gets to be redeemed, by finally allowing herself to be let go, thereby making peace with her past actions. That's why the scenes with Shadow and Laura facing death and love and loneliness were so satisfying to me as a reader. Because they had a pay-off in the end.

So to summarize: It's not a perfect book, not quite. But in its quiet moments of desolation or heartbreak or, occasionally, happiness, it really stands above a lot of the books I've read in the last six months. Gaiman always knows how to push my reading buttons just right. Even better, he seems to understand human nature in all its glory and grossness. And that, my friends, is the reason he might be the only contemporary writer with whom I wish to be best buds.

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