Wed
Sep 19 2012 11:00am

American Gods Reread: Chapters 1 and 2

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.

25 comments
Jack Flynn
1. JackofMidworld
I've never heard that Shadow was unsympathetic, but I've only discussed the book with a couple of people. I fell into step with him straightaway.

And mead is awesome.
StrongDreams
2. StrongDreams
@Emily,
the technical boy is a pimply teen with no social skills because that is what everyone else imagines technical people/internet geeks to be.

@Bridget,
I think Shadow has Audry pegged here. At this point in time, Audrey both loves and hates Robbie and Laura, and she wants Shadow to hate Laura too so she can feel better about her own feelings. He won't help her feel better, so she peels off.

Her reaction later in the book feels less genuine, but maybe she was being manipulated. Here, though, she feels genuine to me.
Bob Musser
3. dogshouse
Thinking about it, mead may explain a lot about the Vikings- drunkeness, a sugar high, edged weapons and testosterone= bad news for coastal villages.

I've only sampled mead at beer tastings, and different kinds, well, taste different, so there may be a variety for Emily's Viking adventure out there.
Rob Munnelly
4. RobMRobM
Wonderful lead in chapters. Almost like something from an Elmore Leonard novel. Crisp and beautiful.
StrongDreams
5. olethros
Mead tastes nothing like Southern Comfort. Generally speaking, it most closely resembles Riesling in appearance and flavor, and Eiswein in texture.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
I don't love this book not because Shadow is reticent but because he's so incredibly passive; as the story progressed I kept wanting him to be MAD and he refused to be. Just sat there, like a lump. Also because I dislike what the ending collapses the story down into.

There's a lot of good stuff in the book ("Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?"), which makes it all the more frustrating to me.
Chris Long
8. radynski
I definitely didn't like this book, but it had nothing to do with Shadow being unsympathetic. In fact, I agree that I think he is a very sympathetic character. It was a related issue though.

For me, when I read a book I like to find a character that I can sympathize with and then essentially experience the book vicariously through them. And I think a number of us do this. With this book, right from the beginning he loses his wife and finds out she was cheating on him, and I just couldn't deal with that.

It wasn't that I couldn't sympathize with him, it was that I didn't WANT to. And that was enough to really kill the book for me. I read the whole thing, but I could never "get into" it because of that beginning.
StrongDreams
9. StrongDreams
@kate,
I have trouble with heroes and heroines who hate themselves (cf Thomas Convenant), but I was okay with Shadow's passivity. His "leave me alone and I'll leave you alone" fits perfectly with his history growing up and his time in prison. He's being swept along by events he has no control over nor understanding of, but as he starts to really understand what is going on and what his role is he does take an active role.

He's still somewhat passive in Monarch, but ends up by telling the world that while he may be a monster, he's his own monster and not anyone's tool any more.

It would be disappointing though if he maintained the same passivity in a Gods sequel.
Bridget McGovern
10. BMcGovern
@StrongDreams #2 Yeah, I can see that...maybe what really bothers me is Audrey's violent bitterness in contrast with Shadow's passive acceptance, but as you mention in your last comment (#9), it all fits in a big-picture kind of way.

I don't find Shadow unsympathetic, but I can see him being hard to relate to. As StrongDreams points out, he starts out as kind of a blank (clearly, his name is no accident), and then there's the conversation further on in the book where Laura asks him if he's really alive...he's not the world's most dynamic presence, and I can certainly see that being a turn-off for some readers.

I do think this works better upon rereading (once you know where his arc is going), but I really wonder about the casting of the series, and how it will affect my image of Shadow. I just don't have a strong mental image of what the character would be like physically--his physical presence, his facial expressions, what he sounds like--I just think of him as a big strong shadow-y guy (and have never been able to picture Vin Diesel in the role, for some reason, even if he's what Gaiman had in mind). Usually I have more definite opinions (and I do with other characters in this novel), but with Shadow, I'm all question marks. Hopeful question marks, I guess...
StrongDreams
11. Apsalar
I think American Gods and Neverwhere both have protagonists that go through this very weird adventure but are sort of passively accepting of the whole thing. I read American Gods just before I read Neverwhere, and I thought this similarity was striking.
Pamela Adams
12. Pam Adams
My opinion on Sam Fetisher is that he's one of the gods who has come to terms with what little support he's getting and just wants to keep his head down and stay out of Wednesday's war.
“Not that kind of storm. Bigger storms than that coming. I tell you, boy, you’re better off in here than out on the street when the big storm comes."

You're not alone- I didn't catch Low Key/Loki either on my first read.

It still amazes me that Shadow, who 'didn't read books,' was willing to take on Herodotus. (let alone that the prison library carried it)
Ian Gazzotti
13. Atrus
Women don't take their husband's surname here, so I had never connected that Shadow's surname was supposed to be Moon as well. The more you know.

And for those who prefer a spoiler-free read along, here's a link to the Mark Reads review of American Gods.
StrongDreams
14. Dimmer
Sorry for interrupting the thread, but I couldn't find a spot for a more general question:

"Tor.com is delighted to announce our newest feature on the site: an ongoing reread of all things Neil Gaiman, from his major novels and comics to his short stories and lesser known works."

Will the "lesser known works" include his early material for the UK jazz magazines "Knave" and "Fiesta" -- because I feel that if we overlook this material, we miss out on very relevant (if somewhat juvenile) documents.
Bridget McGovern
15. BMcGovern
@Pam Adams #12: Makes sense to me--I also like to think of him, in retrospect, as somebody who maybe saw through all the Machiavellian manuevering from the very beginning and decided to give it a pass (in a "you can't con a con" kind of way). I'd love to know if Gaiman based him on a specific deity or kind of deity, but regardless, I like Sam Fetisher. I wouldn't mind a spin-off story one day :)

@Atrus #13: I didn't realize that his last name was "Moon," either, but Gaiman revealed Shadow's real name as "Baldur Moon" back in 2010. My guess is that Laura's maiden name was "McCabe," since her mother, Mrs. McCabe, is mentioned in the second chapter.

@Dimmer #14: We'll certainly take your suggestion under consideration. We've definitely discussed include the early music journalism in the Gaiman Reread (which is going to stretch out over the next year or two, if not longer), but we don't have a schedule set in stone right now. There's so much to cover, but I'd like to think we'll eventually get to everything, sooner or later!
Steven Halter
16. stevenhalter
Shadow has been conditioned. Conditioned by wanting to get out of prison without trouble. He has also clearly been set up. His cell mate being Low Key and then running into Wednesday seem to be clearly not coincidences.
In the plane, we have Wednesday:
The man shook his head. “If it could but have been any other way,” he said, and sighed.
This seems to stand out now to me as an indication that Wednesday has some complicitness in Laura's death. I don't recall if we find out any more on this.
Caroline E Willis
17. CEWillis
Mead does taste a bit like that, sometimes.

You can get mead in Indiana, by the by: http://newdaymeadery.com/

In my headcanon, Shadow's drinking the something like the semi-dry.
Bridget McGovern
18. BMcGovern
Clearly, Emily and I are going to have to have a mead-tasting, before this is all over. We'll report back, I promise!

@shalter: You're absolutely right--that line shows up again, with heightened significance, near the very end of Part Three (I think it's Chapter 18). It's interesting to think about which characters are being manipulated as part of the long con, some more directly then others--and what that brings to a larger reading of those characters in terms of free will and personal responsibility...
John Lofgren
19. JohnTheLurker
Here's a resource I found the last time I listened to American Gods: a list of all the gods. You may find it useful. http://www.frowl.org/gods/gods.html I'm looking forward to this reread!
StrongDreams
20. zwitterion
The line that really struck me on re-reading was the end of the very first paragraph. "So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife." On first read, it is just a line about what you are missing and thinking about when you are stuck in prision. On re-read, however, knowing he is in prison because he has taken the fall for his wife, there is a whole new meaning.

This is characteristic of Gaiman, I think. There is nothing that draws particular attention to this bit about Shadow thinking about how much he loves his wife, he doesn't flag it. There is this quiet understated line, that hits hard when you realize the second meaning - he loves his wife enough to spend three years in jail to protect her. And there is some nice ambiguity also, he is thinking about how much he loves his wife - how much does he love her? Does he still think he loves her as much now as the three years come to an end as he did in the beginning? You find out that, yeah, he does, but the other meaning is him mulling over how he loves his wife and how it got him in jail.

I don't read Shadow as passive so much as internal. He is reacting, but his reactions are his feelings, and he doesn't generally express them.

In response to the Herodotus remark above, when you think of what it must be like in the very restricted, entertainment-impoverished environment that Shadow is spending three years in, him reading the Histories doesn't seem so unlikely. A paperback book lent to you by your cell mate with particular recomendation is something you would probably try. "Shadow had made a face, but he had started to read, and had found himself hooked against his will." I think this shows Shadow's underexpressed but rich internality (as well as setting up the idea of accessible interactive gods.) He is smart, and he thinks about things. Sam says, later on when they first meet, "I don't get it. I don't get how you talk, or the words you use or anything. One moment you're a big dumb guy, the next you're reading my friggin' mind , and the next we're talking about Herodotus." The other thing about reading, about what Shadow looks like and how he comes accross, is the bit where he talks about growing up and the summer where he spent the days reading and swimming (and growing) and found in the fall that "the boys who had made him miserable were small, soft things no longer capable of upsetting him." Then at the end of that paragraph, "He liked being big and strong. It gave him an identity. He'd been a shy, quiet, bookish kid, and that had been painful; now he was a big dumb guy, and nobody expected him to be able to do anything more than move a sofa into the next room on his own."

I didn't get Low Key being Loki until the end. Even with the scars. Even with Wednesday being rather more obviously who he is. I haven't had a lot of exposure to the Norse gods though. And when my son was making me read bits of "Snow Crash" it took me a long time to see that Hiro Protagonist could be read as "Hero Protagonist." Now, if I had been reading it out loud.....
Jackey Hankard-Brodie
21. jmh0303
I just finished reading American Gods for the first time when the reread was announced. I found it a great book. Like many others I didn't catch that Low Key was Loki at first. After reading this I just purchased Herodotus to read. Looking forward to seeing what everyone else's take on American Gods is as the reread progresses. I will probably go back and reread some of the chapters as this goes on since parts of it will fade in my memory as I continue to read other books.
StrongDreams
22. MannieJo
I always have a tough time imagining Shadow, too, as an individual - he is a blank slate, and I think Gaiman intends this, because it's hard to know who he will be in the end. All he has tethering him is Laura, and without her, he is a man without allegiance.

He is a shadow, a whisper, a smoke screen for Wednesday - or at least that is Wednesday's intent.

Also, Shadow had been a book-ish kid until he went through his growing spurt, so Herodotus wasn't as big of a leap as it seemed at first. Plus, nothing to do but kill time!
Elizabeth Barnett
23. denelian
i always thought that Wensday did arrange Laura's death. and possibly influence her in ways other than that, though that may just be a personal interpretation and that part of the reason she was able to haunt Shadow is *because* she was killed untimely - especially because the main Norse myths around things "undead" are all of the "untimely" variety

the "Media / Medea" cross has always amused me. Medea has always been a very maligned character in myth; what *IS* it with women being punished for things that men get away with, in myth? one of my favorite things about Gaiman, in general, is that he can critique these things without *re-writing* them, sort of making fun of it, but in a low-key way that lets it be an in-joke for those who know, without it being glaringly obvious to those who don't. if that makes sense.
StrongDreams
25. kluelos
I missed this party completely, but I hope I can get a small revival here.

Wednesday says, in this chapter of AG, that they need all of the tradition they can get, in sealing his deal with Shadow. I get the spitting-on-palms part of this, that's a very old tradition.

What I do not get is the mead. Where does that whole idea of sealing a deal by drinking mead, come from?

Wednesday also says, here, "third time's the charm". I can't find a source for that either. We've all heard "third time pays for all", and understand that to mean that eventual success wipes out earlier failure -- but that's very different from implying that a third attempt is somehow luckier, or that a third drink of something, mead or not, seals a deal.

So far, everyone I ask about this, nods, stops, thinks, and goes ".".

Mythology is crawling with 3's, but apparently not THESE 3's ...
Ian Gazzotti
26. Atrus
I never heard "third time pays for all" before, but I've read and heard "third time's the charm" and variants both in English and Italian. It roughly means that you should try again if you fail, but not too many times. So the third try is the one that settles it.

Drinking to seal a deal is quite popular in many cultures, not so much mythical as traditional. In Europe it's not unusual to settle agreements at the dinner table, in Japan there are drinking parties after a business deal, and there are several countries where marriages (which in olden times were a lot more of a contract and a lot less about love) are more about the booze party than the ceremony.
Wednesday probably chose mead because of his own history (drinking from the mead of poetry) and also because it's quite possibly the ancestor of all fermented beverages.

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