The post contains spoilers for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Voting for the next book club will begin on Monday.
I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone who’s read along with this book club so far that I don’t think this is a terribly successful novel. Gaiman tells far more frequently than he shows, doesn’t do nearly as much as he could with an utterly fascinating concept, and relies heavily on a twist ending that, while obvious, still leaches some of the pleasure from the journey and absolves him of actually having to resolve the conflict that he’s set up, because surprise, it doesn’t matter! That said, I think some of the best things in the novel happen in these final sections.
First, is the idea we’ve been waiting for all along: gods don’t survive well in America because America is itself a deity, and the rise of fall of gods in America is itself a sacrifice to the land that Whiskey Jack explains to Shadow after his vigil for Mr. Wednesday and his trip through the underworld, which as trips through the underworld go is a real snoozefest. That stuff should wrench, man. As Jack puts it:
I’m a culture hero. We do the same shit gods do we just screw up more and nobody worships us. They tell stories about us, but they tell the ones that make us look bad along with the ones where we came out fairly okay…This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on. There are creator spirits who found the arth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it: who’s going to worship Coyote? He made love to Porcupine Woman and got his dick shot through with more needles than a pincushion. He’d argue with rocks and the rocks would win. So yeah, my people figured that maybe there’s something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it’s always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn’t need to. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it.
The fat kid allied with the new gods almost got what was going on when he proposed “settling this peacefully; and the intangibles are pretty much in favor of letting market forces take care of it. I’m being. You know. The voice of reason here.” It’s not the market, though, it’s crop cycles, and planting season, and the fertility of a field. Some gods have to die for spaces in belief to lie fallow for a while until a new idea comes along to fill them. As far as theology goes, it’s about Kevin-Smith-in-Dogma level: have ideas and curiosity rather than absolute convictions.
But I think what works about it is, in particular, the idea of culture heroes. And I think it explains why I sort of feel an affinity with the new gods — to a certain extent, they’re culture heroes. Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen are spirits we’ve called up from beyond the grave to stand in for ideas for us. They’ll be contested, and replaced, and we don’t need distance from them to feel an affinity for them. They make compromises: if caramel popcorn’s really the price for Budweiser, they’ll pay it.
And shrinking the framework down a bit gets the novel to its only truly profound articulation of the terror and cruelty of divinity and sacrifice, Hinzelmann revelation of his true origins:
And Shadow thought to himself, of course. That’s as good a way as any other of making a tribal god. He did not have to be told. He knew. You take a baby and you bring it up in the darkness, letting it see no one, touch no one, and you feed it well as the years pass, feed it better than any of the village’s other children, and then, five winters on, when the night is at its longest, you drag the terrified child out of its hut and into the circle of bonfires, and you pierce it with blades of iron and of bronze. Then you smoke the small body over charcoal fires until it is properly dried, and you wrap it in furs and carry it with you from encampment to encampment, deep in the Black Forest, sacrificing animals and children to it, making it the luck of the tribe. When, eventually, the thing falls apart from age, yo place its fragile bones in a box, and you worship the box; until one day the bones are scattered and forgotten, and the tribes who worshiped the child-god of the box are long gone; and the child-god, the luck of the village, will be barely remembered, save as a ghost or a brownie: a kobold.
If you went through that to get born, of course you’d feel owed, of course you’d struggle bloodily to stay alive and feel that you were justified. And it’s why the Lakeside sections of the novel work so much better than anything else in the book. They’re about sacrifice and the end of belief. The residents of the town were willing to pay for its unsustainable prosperity by sacrificing their children as long as they didn’t have to look directly at the fact that they were consenting to that sacrifice, as long as they avoided solving the mystery that was right in front of them. In a recession, it’s a particularly poignant message — there are no sacrifices we can make the the gods of the market, but the residents of Lakeside could. Their desperation and Hinzelmann’s interlocked with each other until it became unsustainable for a single person, because ultimately that’s all it takes to break belief, or to pull a trigger. Gods may die easy in America, but in Lakeside, we have a sense of what the cost might be of a town or a people that are headed into a fallow cycle, hoping for the land to be renewed.