Welcome to the ninth installment of our ongoing 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. Please be aware that there will be spoilers in the post and comments.
This week we’ll be discussing the epilogue and postscript of the novel, as Shadow attends to some unfinished business on several fronts (after a quick karaoke break, of course…)
Part IV: Epilogue: Something That the Dead Are Keeping Back; Chapter 19:
Shadow drops Mr. Nancy off in Florida; karaoke ensues. Hungover (again), he remembers Ganesh, from his time on the world tree, and realizes that he has to get back to Lakeside before the ice melts….
I’m one of those people who fears karaoke because, as much as I love music, I can’t carry a tune in a solid gold bucket (although I happen to know that Emily does not have this problem). But even though singing in public isn’t my thing, even I can get on board with Shadow’s night out with Nancy—I mean, how better to celebrate singlehandedly averting a bloody, apocalyptic battle between gods than by getting drunk and singing at the top of your lungs? It just seems like something a demigod with ties to the Norse pantheon should be doing when he’s feeling good.
And it’s nice to see Shadow taking baby steps, from the big, shy, quiet guy to storyteller to performer (even if it’s just at a little Floridian hole-in-the-wall)—it’s not like he died and came back and all his problems were solved; instead, we see that he’s working through a process of becoming more engaged, more alive, even when it’s something silly like karaoke. Maybe especially then.
Lastly, we get the reveal that the buffalo man isn’t a god, but the land itself, which is an interesting notion…it’s kind of an odd version of American exceptionalism as applied to gods and other supernatural figures. America has its own thing going—from the very beginning, the spirit of the land preceded all gods, and the people who brought those gods, and the land apparently gets the final word about whether they’ll all get to stay.
As Bridget mentioned above, I'm a major fan of karaoke, so this little journey makes so much sense to me. It's not just that it seems the perfect, innocuous way to bring a war to an end, but anyone who has ever done a rousing round at a karaoke bar (sober or not) just knows—it is literally the most cathartic thing you can do. Singing is one of the best ways to release energy of any sort, even if you require liquid motivation to get there, and then you get full clearance to be a rock'n'roll badass. Which is probably why so many people enjoy it, divas and wallflowers alike. Trust Shadow's Aunt Nancy to know just what they both need to shake all the craziness off.
Also, I like the suggestion that appreciating music is a form of worship; Nancy looks gray, wounded, and tired on their drive back home, but by the time he's done with his two numbers, he's healed and happy. It's part of what makes Nancy so easy to love, in my opinion—he's one of the few main gods we encounter who doesn't thrive on death and carnage.
And America may be a country, but the buffalo man's true identity makes a case for defter, older hands working behind the scenes, no matter who sailed the ocean or colonized the shores. A great example of what differentiates America—it's the country that takes great pains to choose its own destiny. Literally. If you remain it is only because America allows it. And if you disrespect that allowance, after long enough, you may no longer be welcome. That's a pretty awesome idea, really.
Part IV: Epilogue: Something That the Dead Are Keeping Back; Chapter 20:
Shadow rushes back to Lakeside and finds Alison McGovern’s body in the trunk of the klunker, just before the car crashes through the thawing ice. Hinzelmann hauls him out of the lake and back to his home; as Shadow warms up and recovers by the fire, he confronts Hinzelmann about the dead children. Chad Mulligan interrupts them, shoots Hinzelmann, and sets the house on fire; sensing his overwhelming guilt and pain, Shadow is able to push the events of the day from Mulligan’s mind and says goodbye. In Madison, Shadow sees Sam Black Crow one last time, then goes to pay his debt to Czernobog.
I like how this chapter is sort of set up as Shadow playing out a role, in an almost self-conscious way: “He felt strangely distant as he trudged across the frozen lake, as if he was watching himself on a movie screen—a movie in which he was the hero, a detective, perhaps” (492). He also thinks back to an old Tony Curtis movie while he’s trapped under the ice, a reference to 1953’s Houdini, and Hinzelmann calls him “Houdini” when he wakes up in the bathtub a little later—the allusion makes me think of a magician as a tough guy or an action hero (the film version of Houdini’s life, as produced by George Pal, was heavily fictionalized).
In any case, after all the supernatural sturm und drang of the last few chapters, this feels like a more conventional storyline: “our hero solves a murder mystery!”…at least at first. Once it turns out that the killer is a kobold from the Black Forest, a tribal god who was himself sacrificed as a child, things get interesting; it’s like “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” got mixed up with an episode of Law and Order: SVU. Luckily for Shadow, Chad Mulligan shows up to cut through all of the moral ambiguity involved—lucky for Hinzelmann, too, since we’re given the impression that he wants to be released from the grisly pattern of so many years.
Between readings of this book, I tend to sort of blurrily think about the way things get resolved as a happy ending of sorts, but of course it’s not: it’s a satisfying ending to a tragic and complicated set of circumstances. It ends as happily as it can, but Lakeside is not only going to have to deal with the harsh realities of modern living, but with all the sins of the past. It’s kind of a perfect way to wrap up the noir-ish, hardboiled themes running through the novel.
Shadow’s visit to Madison to check in on Sam Black Crow is very sweet—not only do we find out that Sam dreams of a woman with a buffalo head underground and people who fell from the sky, but it’s obvious that she’s connected to Shadow, on some level, as well. She’s dreamed about him, and sensed when he was (temporarily) dead...I’ve said it before, but I would love to read more about Sam and her adventures, if Neil Gaiman ever decides to revisit the world of American Gods. Oh, and I like that Shadow never speaks to her, but lets her move on with her life, while telling himself, “What the hell. We’ll always have Peru…and El Paso. We’ll always have that.” Again, he’s still playing the tough film noir hero to himself, wryly channeling Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, as he heads to his date with Czernobog’s hammer.
But when Czernobog/Bielebog give in to spring fever and decide to go easy—it’s such a delightful image: Shadow kissing the Zorya and bounding down the stairs like a kid on Christmas. Shadow’s no longer a man on a mission, or under contract—he’s just free. And (understandably) ecstatic.
I have a friend who really doesn't like this book. Her reasons when I last talked to her were because the descriptions of the land got her down—she felt as though so many barren and depressing landscapes were a way of saying that America was similarly situated. Personally, I think that the treatment and description of the landscape is offering two things within this novel: first, a sense of pathetic fallacy, as the literary device is called, the idea that the land is actually feeling along with the characters (which it technically is, if we're talking about the buffalo man). And, of course, the other is associating the weather with narrative structures—the conflicts in American Gods occur primarily during the winter, when the world is darkest, when things are dead and dying. Then spring comes and everything is renewed again, everyone is offered a second beginning.
We see this most literally in Shadow's revival from death (or nothingness, whatever we want to call it). But I always found the image of that car on the ice to be the place where the book really hit it for me. Tying that final mystery to the coming of spring, and giving Shadow some say in when that spring comes; you could argue that he predetermined the end date of these things when he picked his date for the charity raffle, that perhaps he used a little of that “god will” to make it stick.
And then we find out that this spring is a different kind of spring, a better spring than the others before it, when we see Czernobog in transition. He hasn't been Bielebog for a long time, but this winter was more like a White Witch Narnia winter for him. Now that true spring has come, he has the ability to renew as well. I love that for all Shadow's confusion at the start of the book, he seems to have an innate sense of how these things work now—he understands that Czernobog and his brother occupy the same place or body, however you want to put it, and even thinks to ask if he's still Czernobog as they're speaking. Not so dumb after all, as Nancy said.
Wednesday wanders about Reykjavik, Iceland on the Fourth of July and encounters a (semi-)familiar figure.
I love the description of Shadow’s discomfort with the sense of continuity he perceives in Reykjavik—the language and culture stretching back thousands of years, so foreign to an American in some ways. He finds it both scary and reassuring, which sounds about right for someone who grew up in a culture that only thinks of itself as a couple of hundred years old. He’s also still thinking about Wednesday and his mother, and how they got together in the first place.
It’s interesting that he would choose to go to Iceland (although I know Gaiman was originally inspired to write America Gods by a stopover in Iceland, so it makes sense in a real world context). But within the world of the novel, it’s interesting that Shadow would head for a Nordic country, both because of the obvious connection to Norse culture, myth, and Wednesday himself, and because whenever his mother’s job is alluded to, the embassies she worked out were in Northern Europe or Scandinavia, so even after she left Wednesday and America behind, she and Shadow seemed to have mainly traveled in countries with ties to Norse culture, historically speaking.
So, even though Shadow seems to think of his travels as an escape from America and a break from the crazy god-related events of the winter and early spring, he didn’t go to an island to lay on a beach somewhere—he went somewhere that might remind him of both of his parents, on some level, as if he’s still searching for something (in a very low-key way).
And of course he’s going to run into Odin, sooner or later. I love the description of ageing hippie Euro-Odin—for some reason, the detail about his hat always makes me picture Gandalf. I realized that, on previous readings, I was thinking about this version of Odin as a new incarnation of Wednesday—blame it on too much Doctor Who, but I guess I was thinking that Wednesday had
regenerated come back in a purer, less corrupt form. Now I realize that reading doesn’t actually make very much sense, now that I’m paying attention…this Odin seems even more ancient than the elderly con man in his expensive suits, and claims that “He was me…but I am not him.”
So, is this the Original Odin? Does every country with believers in old Norse gods have its own version of Odin? In Chapter 6, Kali mentioned an incarnation of herself in India “who does much better,” so I assume that’s the case…I wonder what happens if two of them run into each other. Would it be awkward?
In any case, this Odin is kind of fun, for a Lord of the Gallows, and I love that the book ends with Shadow performing a magic trick (Mad Sweeney’s trick, to be exact), and wandering off to his next adventure. It’s made clear that he’ll eventually make his way back to America where things are waiting for him (old god-related things? Or land-related things, I wonder?)…but for the present, he finally just seems to be living in the moment.
I always loved the idea that this Odin was an older Odin, but I wonder if he's truly the original Odin. When discussing how gods work within this novel, it seems that each country or land has its own version of whatever gods were brought there, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the ones alive and well in certain countries are the originals. It makes you wonder—if a group of truly faithful people came back to America and worshipped Odin, could Wednesday come back? I'm inclined to think yes.
The idea of the book finishing up on the Fourth of July always made me giggle, especially taking place so far from home. It's seldom that Independence Day is used well in fiction symbolically, but Shadow understands it better than anyone. He's completely free, in a way that he has never been before, and now we're far into summer, another careful turn of seasons. Perhaps the coming of summer here signifies Shadow preparing to enter the prime of his life.
That blue hat and such should be reminiscent of Gandalf, for sure—Tolkien afficianados know that he was a great fan of Norse myth, and deliberately modeled Gandalf on Odin, though he changed his name. As a result, this time around, I ended up hearing Icelandic Odin as Ian McKellen, which really works. And he's got the eyepatch, which I have to say I missed on Wednesday.
And I'm a fan of how the ending of the book sort of hangs there in mid-air, just like the coin might be. It leaves the world wide open in a highly satisfying way. It makes me want to go on an adventure. Which is what great books can do.
That’s all for this week, but please share your own theories and observations with us in the comments, and don’t forget to check out this week’s installment of the American Gods Mix Tape, karaoke tunes and all! And while we’ve reached the end of the book, there’s still a bit more to talk about: join us again next week for some concluding thoughts on both American Gods and the novella “The Monarch of the Glen,” which features the continuing adventures of one Mr. Balder “Shadow” Moon….
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. The greatest karaoke performance she's ever seen involved an epic duet to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” No gods were present that night.
Emily Asher-Perrin thinks karaoke in Iceland is in order now. Eating puffin and belting out “Ballroom Blitz” just seems right.