“American Gods” is, as you can see, a long and complex novel that is hard to summarize, but here are some highlights. The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is in prison as the story opens, and about to be released. He dreams of returning to his beautiful wife Laura and their home in a small midwestern town, where he has a job waiting, working for his best friend Robbie. Just before that release is due, he’s summoned to the warden’s office and learns that Laura and Robbie have been killed together in an auto accident. He’s given early release to attend the funeral.
On the way there, Shadow is diverted by a bearded con-man named Wednesday, who is in fact, as we gradually learn, the god Odin. Wednesday proves his power to Shadow, both to hurt him and to help him, and before long Shadow has agreed to work for Wednesday as his personal bodyguard/assistant/driver. When the two arrive together in Shadow’s home town, painful truths are revealed about the death of his friend and his wife. Shadow gives a bit of the power he’s unknowingly received through Wednesday to Laura, which brings her back to a semblance of life, but as a living corpse.
Before long, Shadow and Wednesday are traveling all over the US and Canada trying to recruit other old gods to Wednesday’s side in what he sees as a coming battle between those old gods, and new American gods spawned by the media, technology and finance. Those new gods harass and oppose them, while many of the old gods are reluctant to join Wednesday’s cause for their own reasons. Most are barely surviving on the scant bits of human worship they can still receive. Wednesday and Shadow have meetings with gods both obscure and familiar, and the reader is often left to figure out who they are through hints rather than directly.
When Shadow isn’t working for Wednesday, he’s hiding out in the small upper midwestern town of Lakeside, where he makes new friends and allies, and begins to build a new life that becomes increasingly important to him.
Encounters between Shadow and the new gods grow more violent, though Shadow’s wife Laura helps to protect him, and eventually he finds himself undergoing an ordeal that will probably end his life, an epic heroic gesture that is probably futile, but one he can’t resist trying in order to save the world and the friends he’s lately discovered after the hard knocks he received. It may mean his end.
I enjoyed rereading this, having read it when it first came out fifteen years ago. This is an expanded version containing the author’s preferred text. I can’t say what’s new in it, but there are about 12,000 new words, according to the introductory notes. Reading it again, I’m struck by similarities to the work of Roger Zelazny, work which both Neil and I love, and Zelazny is credit-checked in the dedication. While Zelazny can be epic in the same way, his work is generally less rich emotionally, at least to me. Neil’s characters are more real, more heartfelt, in my estimation. Setting this story mainly in real, if odd, American places helps to ground it so that fantasy elements are more balanced. The arc of the story is deep and long and satisfying. I may be too close to Neil’s work to be an accurate judge, but I find this novel to be one of his best. I would put it right behind my favorite, “Stardust.”