Once again late to the party, I came across Neil Gaiman's American Gods.
And devoured it.
My reaction to Neil Gaiman, in general, is quite similar to my reaction to Stephen King: amazing, fascinating, compelling books, but often the subject matter, or theme, or setting, is too disturbing for me and I avoid even attempting the book.
American Gods is plenty disturbing, no doubt about it.
But it is also intoxicating and absorbing.
Whenever I think about Stephen King, and how he must work, I envision that there is some moment where he suddenly gets an idea, vivid and remarkable, and then he develops it and develops it and develops it, and the result is The Dark Tower, or some such.
With American Gods, I wonder if the original spark for Gaiman was actually captured in the title of the book, and perhaps went something like this: Who are the American Gods? We know about Norse Gods, and Greek Gods, and Egyptian Gods, and Chinese Gods, so surely there must be American Gods?
And as he thought about this, perhaps he thought, well: people came to America, and so perhaps their gods came to America, too?
Hyacinth learned some French, and was taught a few of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Each day he cut sugar cane from well before the sun rose until after the sun had set.
He fathered several children. He went with the other slaves, in the small hours of the night, to the woods, although it was forbidden, to dance the Calinda, to sing to Damballa-Wedo, the serpent god, in the form of a black snake. He sang to Elegba, to Ogu, Shango, Zaka, and to many others, all the gods the captives had brought with them to the island, brought in their minds and their secret hearts.
And yet, gods also emerge from a place, so what sort of gods might emerge from America? Well it would depend a lot on what Americans believed in:
"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. [...] " She stopped, out of breath.
Shadow almost took his hands off the wheel to applaud. Instead he said, "Okay. So if I tell you what I've learned you won't think that I'm a nut."
"Maybe," she said. "Try me."
"Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today?"
"And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn't room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is likely."
But what would happen as these new gods emerged? And what would happen to those old gods, here in America?
"This is a bad land for gods," said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn't Friends, Romans, Countrymen, but it would do. "You've probably all learned that, in your own way. The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you've been forgotten, or you're scared you're going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you're just getting tired of existing on the whim of people."
The problem is, as Gaiman observes, that America is America, and that has some pretty serious consequences, both for the old and for the new:
There was an arrogance to the new ones. Shadow could see that. But there was also a fear.
They were afraid that unless they kept pace with a changing world, unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over.
American Gods is already 17 years old, and as I read through it I thought it was fated to be a book stuck in a certain time. After all, for a book about "gods of computers and telephones and whatever," there isn't a self-driving car or a social media app or a virtual reality headset to be found anywhere in the book.
But as Gaiman, an Englishman and yet also a converted American, knows deeply in his soul, so much of what makes America America is distinct from the momentary matters of a certain time or place:
"The battle you're here to fight isn't something that any of you can win or lose. The winning and the losing are unimportant to him, to them. What matters is that enough of you die. Each of you that falls in battle gives him power. Every one of you that dies, feeds him. Do you understand?"
Laser-focused and razor-sharp, Gaiman's clarity of vision and courage to let the truth emerge from the telling produces a sure and solid result, a book that doubtless will be read and re-read decades from now, for its story, in the end, is timeless.