The plot of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” is a straightforward one, as the writer himself wrote. “[The book] is the story of a man called Shadow [Moon], and the job he is offered when he gets out of prison. It is the story of a small Midwestern town, and the disappearances that occur there every winter”. And for me, three aspects stood out: first, the characters – Shadow in particular, together with the gods and the mythological creatures – and their quirks; second, the allusions to contemporary culture, communicated through the central conflict between the old and the new gods; and third, the unpredictability of the narrative, with the elements of foreshadowing.
Shadow – often characterised as being “compelling” and “complex” – grows on the reader. From his transition from a convict to a bodyguard for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday he remains pensive and passive (the third-person narrative allows for the communication of his dreams and visions), and despite his burly physique and reserved nature the other characters take to him very quickly, and slowly but surely he assumes a central position at the climax. Perhaps it is his compassion and kindness, or his aversion to violence, or his loyalty. In fact, it is also through his experience and interactions that the reader meets both the Old Gods of ancient mythology and the New American Gods of modern life and technology, and in the process find out more about their traits and history.
Limited knowledge of history and mythology, in this vein, can be a handicap, though the allusions to contemporary culture are not lost. The power of the Old Gods have diminished, as Americans move on to worship the New American Gods. And since these new mythical beings represent the media, technology, and other contemporary vices, the links become obvious. Some of these links, moreover, are emphasised through the sub-plots and cut-away scenes between the chapters of “American Gods”.
And finally, given the unpredictability of its plot, the book also has features of good detective fiction. Like the reader, Shadow was initially in the dark about Mr. Wednesday’s endeavours to recruit gods and magical creatures for an epic battle, and as the book progresses there is further uncertainty about this battle or the supposed “storm”, when it will unfold, and the expected outcome or its implications. And like good detective fiction the accoutrements given to Shadow, Shadow’s little discoveries in and observations of Lakeside and its inhabitants, and the little references – such as the “two-men con” – foreshadow future developments. Loose ends are neatly tied up, for a satisfying conclusion.