Why do so many British writers want to be American? Haven’t they noticed that they just can’t do it? Amis, Dibdin, Faulks… the big men of British letters storm off to America, and write novels that sink somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, unwanted on either shore.
Neil Gaiman is the latest in this line. He has several advantages: he lives in Minnesota; he has already conquered America – and the rest of the world – with his sparkling series of graphic novels, Sandman; he writes fantasy, which is a slippery genre, ungoverned, ungovernable.
The premise of American Gods is simple and brilliant. People arrived in America with the gods of their homelands, then forgot them, but the gods survived. No-one worshipped them, but they found jobs, built homes, made lives for themselves, just like any other immigrants. Now, the old gods are fighting for survival against new and terrible deities: the gods of modernity and progress, media and technology, cars and aeroplanes, zeroes and ones.
Our guide and hero is a man called Shadow, who is released from prison only a couple of pages after we meet him. He gets a job as bodyguard and driver for a mysterious old man named Wednesday, a cunning con artist with magical powers. Wednesday weaves across the States, snatching money and sex, working his cons on the dumb public, shocking Shadow with his cynicism and frivolity.
Through a series of strange encounters, Shadow discovers that his boss is actually Odin, the All-Father of the Norse, and his travels have a deeper purpose: he is gathering the old gods for a final battle against their modern rivals. As the conflict comes closer, Shadow realises that he has his own place in the pantheon, his own role in the battle.
Sadly, American Gods promises more than it delivers. The premise is brilliant; the execution is vague, pedestrian and deeply disappointing. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as good as it could be. There are wonderful moments, but they are few and far between. This should be a massive, complex story, a clash of the old world and the new, a real opportunity to examine what drives America and what it lacks. Instead, it is an enjoyable stroll across a big country, populated by an entertaining sequence of “spot the god” contests: Ibis running a funeral parlour, a djinn driving a New York cab, the Queen of Sheba turning tricks on Sunset Boulevard.
One encounter epitomises what this novel could have been. In Iceland, Shadow meets another Odin; the one who was left behind when the Vikings went to America. The Icelandic Odin is very different to his American incarnation: grave, serious, sad, and thoroughly Old World. From his perspective, we look on America’s gods with clear eyes, and suddenly see them for what they are.
Moments like this make American Gods a frustrating read: punctuated by reminders of what it might have been, but, for some reason, isn’t.
Perhaps Gaiman is haunted by his own past: his descriptive powers don’t do justice to his ambition, and a few pictures could happily replace many thousands of the words bulking out these 500 pages. Or he may simply have been defeated by the scale and scope of his subject.
An ambitious failure is more interesting than a cautious success, and it suggests the possibility of better to come. Perhaps Gaiman will be the first Briton to write a Great American Novel, but he hasn’t done it yet.
Reviewed by Josh Lacey