‘American Gods’ Book Club Part I: Believe Everything, Especially America

This post contains spoilers through the first four chapters of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. If you want to spoil beyond that, feel free, just label your comment as such. For next week, let’s read through the end of Part I (up to, but not beyond, chapter 9. I should note, by the way, that I’m reading the original rather than the re-released author’s preferred text.

One of the things I love about American Gods, and that I think is true of the best of Neil Gaiman’s work, is the way he establishes the human tendency towards myth, and the Gods’ tendencies towards mundanity. And while American Gods is not precisely a social problem novel, I appreciate that he starts laying that groundwork in a story about prison culture and the way it makes it harder for ex-cons to re-acclimate:

The upshot of it all was that Johnnie Larch never actually made it to Seattle, and he spent the next couple of days in town in bars, and when his one hundred dollars was gone he held up a gas station with a toy gun for money to keep drinking, and the police finally picked him up for pissing in the street. Pretty soon he was back inside serving the rest of his sentence and a little extra for the gas station job. And the moral of this story, according to Johnnie Larch, was this: don’t piss off people who work in airports.

‘Are you sure it’s not something like ‘The kind of behavior that works in a specialized environment, such as prison, can fail to work and in fact ecome harmful when used outside such an environment’?” said Shadow, when Johnnie Larch told him the story.

But even though we have a tendency to make myths out of our lives, that doesn’t mean we can accept the extraordinary. What lets Bilquis get away with her seductions is the fact that her clients can’t believe what’s happening to them. And Mr. Wednesday’s pose as a two-bit con artist not only lets him support himself, but it disguises his extraordinariness. Gods don’t turn tricks or scams, because why would they? In the world of American Gods, Americans can’t quite conceive of the Gods as small, but that doesn’t mean they can appreciate them in all their profound strangeness and power either, as Shadow begins to find out in a series of disturbing dreams:

His eyes were liquid black marbles, and his voice was a rumble from beneath the world. He smelled like wet cow. ‘Believe,’ said the rumbling voice. ‘If you are to survive, you mus believe.’ ‘Believe what?’ Shadow asked. ‘What should I believe?’ He stared at Shadow, the buffalo man, and he drew himself up huge, and his eyes filled with fire. He opened his spit-flecked buffalo mouth and it was red inside with the flames that burned inside him, under the earth. ‘Everything,’ roared the buffalo man.”

It makes sense, then, how the New Gods got their foothold, by promising to make belief comprehensible by fitting it into scientific systems. But as Shadow’s encounter with the young man in the dark car suggests, reducing faith to its mechanics also means foregoing a kind of mythic power that animates forward progress. “Tell him that we have fucking reprogrammed reality. Tell him that language is a virus and that religion is an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam,” Mr. Wednesday’s antagonist warns Shadow. “You should know that if we do fucking kill you that we’ll just delete you. You got that? One click and you’re overwritten with random ones and zeroes. Undelete is not an option.” Relying on faith may be old-fashioned, or irrational, but it can empower people to make critical, wild leaps forward, as it does with Gaiman’s Norse explorers, who are driven by the comforts of their cosmology: “’The All-Father made the world,’ he shouted. ‘He built it with his hands rom the shattered bones and the flesh of Ymir, his grandfather. he placed Ymir’s brains in the sky as clouds, and his salt blood became the seas we crossed. If he made the world, do you not realize that he created this land as well? And if we die here as men, shall we not be received into his hall?’”


One thing I’m curious about is whether America’s a uniquely conducive home for the Gods, old and new — and whether it’s uniquely susceptible to the transition the new Gods want to implement by their coup. It’s not just that the land is a divine construct, the kind of place where, even planted in shallow soil, “Tyr, one-handed, and gray Odin gallows-god, and Thor of the thunders,” can take root and survive the wait for new worshippers. America, as Mr. Ibis suggests, is itself a myth: “The important thing to understand about American history…is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, for the easily bored…It is a fine fiction…that America was founded by pilgrims, seeking the freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas, spread, and bred and filled the empty land.” It would make sense that a country that is, in and of itself, a kind of religioun would be fertile ground — and contested space — for the divine.