Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

American Gods Reread: Chapters 1 and 2

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Welcome to the very first installment of our American Gods Reread, a rambling literary road trip through Neil Gaiman’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning novel (soon to be an HBO series). Each week we’ll be following the adventures and misadventures of Shadow Moon and his employer, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, through a landscape both familiar and deeply strange.

A storm is coming, and battle lines are being drawn between old gods and new, while Shadow tries to figure out his role in the face of mortal peril and immortal power plays. Each week we’ll be here to analyze the big picture and obsess over the tiny details, references and illusions, so please keep in mind that it’s not our first our first time at the rodeo, and we will be including spoilers in our discussion of the book, starting with this week’s post. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the first two chapters of American Gods—the Author’s Preferred Text edition, courtesy of HarperCollins. And now, without further ado: Chapters 1 and 2…

Part One: Shadows—Chapter 1: Introducing Shadow Moon, incarcerated, about to be released after serving three years in prison. Two days before his scheduled release, he is told that his wife, Laura, has died in a car accident. Free, he travels home to attend her funeral in Eagle Point, Indiana, meeting the mysterious Mister Wednesday on the way. In an attempt to escape Wednesday (and his persistent job offers), Shadow rents a car and takes a detour to Jack’s Crocodile Bar…only to find Wednesday there ahead of him. Interlude: Bilquis, the legendary queen of Sheba, practicing the world’s oldest profession on the streets of modern day L.A., feeds off the worship of a would-be client.

Bridget:

This is my third time reading American Gods, and I think the thing that struck me most about the opening chapter this time around was the hard-boiled, noir-ish overtones— the razor sharp focus on details, mounting tension, uneasiness and suspense. Shadow wouldn’t be out of place in a Chandler or Hammett story: tough, close-mouthed but intelligent, with hidden depths. Some other first impressions (on the third time around):

• I’ve always loved the introduction of Herodotus, here: with his dueling reputation as both The Father of History and The Father of Lies, it’s no wonder that a certain Low Key Lyesmith would be a fan. Shadow’s fondness for Herodotus’ Histories, in which fiction, rumor, history and mythology combine into a huge, fascinating tangle, sets the stage for the novel about to unfold, and reminds us that “history” itself can be a problematic concept, at best. It’s just one of the great instances of Gaiman’s clever, even winking, ability to drop in a seemingly casual reference that ends up resonating through the entire narrative.

• “Shadow felt like a pea being flicked between three cups, or a card being shuffled through a deck”: Rereading this book, you really begin to understand how well constructed it is, in terms of small details and clever, crafty foreshadowing. Things that don’t ring with any particular significance the first time—like Wednesday’s line, “You could be the next king of America,” or Shadow’s sense that “[a]nything electronic seemed fundamentally magic”—suddenly jump off the page. More than anything, the references to cons, grifts, and hustles that constantly pop up from the first few pages on…even Shadow’s recently acquired interest in coin tricks, which bridge the gap between magic and grifting in a significant way, if you think about it. Once you know where the story is going, suddenly all the little narrative breadcrumbs lining the trail seem so obvious.

• The song that inspired Shadow’s name is included in the first installment of our American Gods Mix Tape series, but I wonder about some of the other names that pop up in this chapter. There’s “Laura,” which makes me think of both the eponymous 1944 movie (about a man investigating the death of a woman…who turns out not to be dead, after all), and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. (I’m a huge fan, I can’t help it, and there are certainly plenty of bizarre, Lynchian moments in the novel—especially once we get to Lakeside.) Laura’s best friend, Audrey, also shares a name with one of the major characters on Twin Peaks…I wonder if Gaiman is a fan? Audrey’s husband (and Shadow’s best friend) Robbie Burton’s first name could relate to either Twin Peaks’ Bobby Briggs or the infamous Bob…or maybe it’s an odd, sideways reference to the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton?  Of course, maybe the names are completely random, but it’s fun to speculate….

• Not much to say on the first of our deity-centric interludes, which ends the first chapter with a bang… I’ve always wondered why Gaiman chose Bilquis as a succubus, since I’m only familiar with the Queen of Sheba as a woman renowned mainly for her wisdom and political power, not as a deity identified with lust and sexuality. Is this maybe a commentary on modern American values, capable of mindlessly worshipping sex but not able to recognize a wise, powerful female figure ?

• Finally, any theories on Sam Fetisher? He clearly senses that Shadow is different, and singles him out in prison to warn him about the coming storm…I remember reading somewhere that his name connected him to voodoo (“fetisher” as a kind of priest or shaman), but I can’t peg him as a specific figure or deity. I’ve always wondered what Sam’s story is….

Emily:

“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.”

I can’t really remember when I’ve read two first lines in any other novel that made me want to fist-bump a wall and shout “Now that’s how you start a book.” It does the job of giving you a carpet bag of questions straight off, and you need to know where it’s going, since we’ve started at the absolute bottom rung—prison. This is my second time reading, and here are a few things I noticed:

• The first time I read this book, I was in the middle of reading Herotodus for the first time in a class, and it was crazy fun reading the two side by side. I’ve gone back to my copy again, and this time find myself wondering wondering if it wasn’t intended as some sort of prep for Shadow, a bit more intentional on Low Key’s part. (I would just like to say that I am actually that dense, and had no idea who Low Key was at the start. I maintain a sort of willful ignorance while I read and watch just about anything.) He gives over a book about travel, about interpreting histories and peoples from the perspective of an outsider—which is essentially the sort of journey Shadow is about to embark on.

• In Gaiman’s introduction, he mentions that this is one of his polarizing works; some peole love it, and some people hate it. One of the reasons he cites is certain readers complaining that Shadow is an unsympathetic character, which sort of boggles me because I instantly adored him the first time around, and feel pretty much the same on the second go. There’s something very appealing about a main character who doesn’t like to spend all of his time talking, especially since that is the more popular direction in entertainment of late. (Tony Stark, the Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) It sets Shadow apart—he’s a listener. We get glimpses very early on of a deeply thoughtful, quiet sort of intelligence, and there’s a sweetness to him when he thinks about and talks to Laura. He may be hard to get a read on, but he’s definitely likeable.

• Before we know the nature of Shadow’s crime, we get a sense that he has let Laura call the shots in their lives since he met her, from that first taste of strawberry daquiri… which makes the eventual reveal of the crime all the more interesting.

 

Part One: Shadows; Chapter 2: Back at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, Shadow learns more about Laura’s death, and agrees to work for Wednesday. They seal the deal with meat and mead, encounter Mad Sweeney, and fighting and coin tricks ensue. Shadow returns to Eagle Point with a wretched hangover, a shiny gold coin, and Wednesday in tow just in time for Laura’s funeral. Shadow gives Laura a final gift, and two unpleasant run-ins with an embittered Audrey Burton lead to an even more unpleasant run-in with one of the more obnoxious new Techno-gods.

Bridget:

I’ll try to keep things a bit shorter, here: I love the episode at Jack’s—the bar, the jukebox, the drunken weirdo who shambles out of nowhere and starts a fight. I think we’ve all been there. We’ve also got the introduction of Mad Sweeney’s hoard, the gold coin which will have so much significance for the rest of the novel, and the first of Wednesday’s many minor cons—all that plus a funeral and smokable toad skins!

• There’s something indescribably blasphemous about a leprechaun drinking Southern Comfort. I mean, I understand that that’s the point, but still, it seems deeply wrong. It also makes me wonder if Janis Joplin was a leprechaun.

• I’ve always been a little bit bothered by the characterization of Audrey, in this chapter. It might not be pretty, but her reaction to the deaths of her husband and her best friend (along with the revelation that the two were having an affair) seems a bit more relatable than Shadow’s sad-eyed stoicism. Clearly, she has mixed feelings toward the woman who was her oldest friend, gathering out-of-season violets (Laura’s favorites) to put in her casket, then spitting in her face. Sure, it’s a little violent and melodramatic for my taste, but she has a right to be angry, no? Audrey might be bitter and irrational, but her encounter with Shadow after the burial seems to show her as at best, petty, and at worst, malevolent and thuggish, and that characterization doesn’t get any better later in the novel. It’s just odd to me, since there’s been no suggestion that Audrey Burton was a terrible or unlikeable person before Laura’s death.

• The Technical Boy, as he is later called in the novel, is a fantastic example of Gaiman’s ability to craft a truly repellent/pathetic villain. I, for one, would love to see what this scene would look like in Sandman-style graphic novel form, especially since there’s something very “All Glory to the Hypnotoad”-esque about the description of the Kid’s bufotenin-fueled haze….

Emily:

I’m pretty sure I had never tried Southern Comfort before I read this book. It made me curious. Then I tried it and wished I’d never been curious. Seriously, Mad Sweeney, damn the ethnic stereotypes, but pick something that doesn’t instantly give you a sugar hangover. Also: has anyone out there actually tried proper mead? Does it really taste like that, because this is shattering my dreams of living like a Viking one day.

• Seeing as this is a reread, we are going back into the book with the knowledge of Shadow and Wednesday’s actual relationship. It made me think a little more on Shadow’s coin tricks—is his initial interest simply keyed into a narrative theme, or does that inclination go deeper? If his father is a con man, does Shadow pick up on that inherently? It could be less of a hobby and more of an inevitable side effect of his parentage.

• I always wondered at the decision to make Technical Boy a snot nose teenager in this, and I come up with a couple options: we can ponder whether or not the gods have some control over their appearance, but perhaps a technology diety would appear young by default due to being a younger god? Or is it that so many of the people responsible for bringing us new technology are essentially young hotshot punks? Either amuses me greatly.

That’s all for now, but let’s keep the discussion going in the comments—who wants to talk about the Buffalo Man, and share further thoughts on Shadow, prison, booze and your own reactions to the first couple of chapters? We’d love to hear what you think, and of course we’ll be back next week with Chapters 3 and 4!


Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She loves all the alligators hanging around Jack’s Crocodile Bar.

Emily Asher-Perrin is probably going to ask the guy at the beer brewing store near her if he can teach her how to brew mead now. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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