Being dyslexic, I’ve never much cared for reading fiction. Non-fiction works fine for me. Made up worlds were also fine – for comics. Comics were the limit of my fiction reading until quite recently. Comics are where I was introduced to Neil Gaiman. Sandman not only revived my addiction to comics after a decade; he got me to check out Shakespeare’s plays, which I now, much to my amazement, love beyond words. Neil Gaiman’s story-telling ability made me want to read novels. Eventually I got round to American Gods.
Not being familiar with novels or with reviews of them, I am anxious about breaking the rules. I have no idea how to avoid spoilers, and if anyone can point me in the direction of an article on the internet in how to write spoiler-free reviews, I’d be very grateful.
Every criticism of the book that I’ve come across and feel the need to refute can’t be defeated without references that will give away too much. But only to those who have not already read this book. Should reviews only be written for those wanting to know whether to read a book, rather than to share ideas with those who have already read it, and maybe want to know if they missed something, and maybe should read it once more? Probably not.
So this review is for those who have read the book at least once, and not at all for those who want to know if they should read it. This book won’t be for everyone; I know for a fact that some people hate it. But if you like Shakespeare, Virgil, Dante and Homer, this might be for you. If you like Battlestar Galactica and Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel, then I’m pretty sure this book will suit you just fine. If you like Sandman, this is definitely a book you’ll love.
One of the criticisms of this book that I want to challenge is what is taken to be a character flaw of the protagonist: he seems to just drift through the novel, saying little, spending a lot of his time living in dreams. Over the few months covered in this book, we experience many of his dreasm, including those brought on by drugs, alcohol, losing consciousness due to physical assault. That’s true. And it seems to be the opposite of what a good protagonist should be. However, surely that’s why his name is so appropriate. That’s what he is, and the story is about how Shadow ceases to be a mere shadow.
Shadow’s motto when we first meet him is: “Do your own time, don’t ask questions, don’t tell them anything they don’t already know.” Don’t do anything to increase his time away from the love of his life. Keep in shape, make it clear you want no trouble from other prisoners or the guards.
He’s spent three years of a six year prison sentence exercising and teaching himself coin tricks. He just wants to get out and live the rest of his life with his soulmate: Laura. Days before getting out on parole, however, he is told he’s getting out early as his wife has just died in a car accident. His world has just ended.He is walking around in a daze, oblivous to bad jokes from guards, unwilling even now to break his motto of keeping his head down, not even got time to let his emotions go, not even being able to cry for several more days.
Shortly after being released from jail, he discovers that the second thing he had to make his release painless had gone up in flames too. His job had also vanished as his employer, his best friend, had died in the same car crash that killed his wife. Now he needed a new job. And, despite trying to avoid taking one offered to him by a mysterious stranger he meets on his plane back home, he makes a bet that he thought he’d cheated but, to his surprise, he lost. Shadow refuses to welsh on his idiotic coin toss bet. He was now working for this mysterious, highly irritating, middle-aged, one-eyed bastard.
Shadow just drift through the rest of this novel as it would appear he has drifted through his life up to ending up in prison. However, that’s not a problem with Neil Gaiman’s plot. The reasons Shadow is like this is integral to the story. At one point, his boss, Wednesday, gets angry and asks why he just does what he’s told, is never phased by anything and never asks how something happened when it was manifestly impossible.
“You don’t pay me to ask questions. Besides nothing’s affected me since Laura.” Not since she returned from the dead, but from discovering that she’d been having an affair with his best friend. No soulmate. No job. The woman who was his entire life actually cheating on him. From about that point on, Shadow either contemplates suicide or wrecklessly puts his life in danger in a way that suggests he is playing russian roulette, someone who is suicidal but doesn’t even have the energy to decisively take his own life. This reaches a point where he not only makes his own death an absolute certaintly, but when he is offered a way out, he insists nothing is done to rescue him. Again and again he puts his life in danger. Losing Laura explains why his life has no meaning.
Additionally, Shadow’s refusal to ask questions or share his thoughts are explained by many things. From the pointe he found he had no option but to take Wednesday’s job offer, he’s broke his parole. He knows from then on in, if he’s caught by the cops he’ll be going back to jail, allows himself to get involved in bank robberies, and soon becomes wanted for murder. Additionally, he is having to hide from Wednesday’s enemies, supernatural creatures who can read your mind when you are dreaming. Shadow has to adopt a new identity in a far away town to avoid being tracked down by mindreaders who kill, and frame others for crimes they didn’t commit.
Shadow has forgiven his dead wife for her infidelity, and he promises to try to find a way to restore her to perfect health. She has not returned healthy. Her body is rotting, decaying, and her personality isn’t all there. She has to hide during the day, and she wants to be whole again.
Shadow’s love for Laura is such that he searches for a way to restore her. But on one occasion where they meet again, each of them basically crushes the spirit of the other, both doing so without malice. Shadow has been hiding from Laura as he can’t bare how her body and personality is decaying, corrupting his memory of their life together. But she thought he wanted to see her. Her happiness is, therefore, crushed when she discovers his attraction for her even in her decaying state existed only in her imagination. And Laura has lost the ability to be diplomatic. She reveals to Shadow that she had always seen him as a man-shaped hole in the world. Her lover, Shadow’s best friend, was in love with life, he wanted things. But Shadow was only loved by Laura, apparently, because he would do anything for her. He was never really there. All he was was her puppy. She worries she’d made him sad. He didn’t trust his voice not to betray him, so he reassured her simply by shaking his head. But, inside, he was crushed, much more so than he made explicit, but which clearly haunted him from that point on.
Laura thought Shadow had never truly been alive. And he seems to agree that she has a point. From that point on, Shadow isn’t just searching for a way to bring her back to a fully healthy life, but he’s also trying to give birth to himself, for the first time in his life to become more than a shadow in the world. The final part of the book is where this man-child does give birth to himself, a birth that doesn’t just end the book, but spins beyond it into an epilogue where a subplot is tied up, several subplots in fact.
By the time you put the book down, you’ll discover that not only has Shadow become a real protagonist, but he’s by far the most resourceful character in the book, intelligent, brave and an inspiration to others.
This book is full of heart, for grown men who don’t mind shedding tears. It is hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny. It is full of symbolism and psychological depth. The theme of love is explored in depths: children, parents, siblings, lovers and ex-lovers, empathy for strangers who just need to be given a hand-up. There is also the theme of the love of gods who don’t deserve to be loved, gods to whom we sacrifise our time and each other. Love of ourselves is also explored, and how some of us have far too much of that, some who are willing to sacrifice anything and everyone to get just a little bit more precious life.