“And he would take a roadside attraction, no matter how cheap, how crossed, or how sad, over a shopping mall, any day.”
—Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I had picked up American Gods about a year ago and put it on my big pile of books to read. Prior to reading this novel, I had read some of Gaiman’s short stories, seen screen adaptations of his work and watched the episodes of Doctor Who that he wrote. Several friends had pushed me to read American Gods, so I finally picked it up over the summer. Within the first few pages, I was in love with the book. Before I get too far, I want to let my readers know that this review will be mostly free of spoilers. I have given away a few plot points, but they are all minor things revealed very early on in the story. I also want to point out that I read the author’s preferred text, which is longer than the original version and contains some edits by Gaiman.
In American Gods, Gaiman has captured American culture in a way that I think is nearly impossible for someone who was born and raised in the U.S. When we are so heavily immersed in our own culture, I think it can be hard to pull a description of cultural identity from our own experience. Gaiman grew up in England, but he moved to the U.S. in 1992. Perhaps this is what gives him the unique perspective that helped lay the groundwork for this novel about Shadow, a man who starts working for the somewhat mysterious Mr. Wednesday in a job that takes him all over the country and through stories that shape the fabric of our cultural identity. Shadow finds himself swept up in the impending storm that is brewing as a result of belief in the old gods fading and people turning increasingly to things like TV and the Internet as their “new gods.”
I think it is a challenge to come up with a succinct description of what makes us American. It goes much deeper than baseball, fireworks on the 4th of July and the American flag. We are a country of immigrants. Our ancestors arrived here with their stories and from that built American culture. We still hold on to pieces of our past in declaring our national heritage outside this country even if our family has been here for many generations. Gaiman’s novel captures this connection to our past through introducing us to the gods who exist in this country because of the people who arrived here with stories of them.
Roadside attractions play a significant part in American Gods. As we learn, early on, such places are among the most sacred spots in the U.S. Wednesday explains to Shadow that in other countries, people would recognize that a place had power and would respond by building a cathedral or other such sacred monument. Shadow points out the there are churches all over the U.S., and Wednesday explains that churches are so common that there placement is, “about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices.” He goes on to say,
No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent voice, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feel satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that (106).
In a time where major amusement parks and packaged entertainment are at the center of many a family vacation, it is interesting that Gaiman takes us to some of America’s odd and unusual roadside attractions. In a way, it symbolizes the battle between the old and new gods that is central to the novel. As Wednesday points out, even when we have a connection to our sacred places, we have a hard time seeing our experience for what it is. This becomes a metaphor for our own disconnect from the old gods in the novel.
My regular readers know that I love road trips, and I am especially fond of following the pull of an old, faded sign that points toward a roadside attraction. Such places tell our cultural story in a way that a grand, highly polished amusement park run by a large corporation cannot. There is beauty in the dusty museum filled with artifacts and black & white photographs in the middle of the Eastern Sierra or the curious metal statues on the side of the road. I like Gaiman’s take on such places in American Gods, and it is a nice way to think of how some of us feel pulled to such places–even if our way of expressing that feeling is through constructing some roadside oddity.
Traveling through American Gods is a journey through understanding the stories that shape our own experience. Such things won’t be found in the latest version of the iPhone or a day at Disneyland. For me, the old stories exist on the road and the places found there, and I hope it is that way of you too. Perhaps if we take a moment to look around and take in what we are seeing, we will feel the sacredness and beauty in these places.
Be sure to check out my friend Jenni Buchanan’s interview with Neil Gaiman over at the Reading Rainbow blog.
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.