Welcome to the fourth 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 join a getaway already in progress, so bring on the talking ravens, Egyptian gods, and a leprechaun who turns up like a bad penny….
Part One: Shadows; Chapter 7:
With some help from one of Wednesday’s ravens, Shadow finds his way out of the woods and on the road to Cairo, Illinois, picking up a car along the way. Another dream encounter with the Buffalo Man is interrupted by Samantha Black Crow, who accompanies him as far as El Paso, IL. Alone again, Shadow finds himself on the receiving end of a creepy job offer from one of the new gods (in the form of TV’s Lucy Ricardo). He declines and continues on to Cairo, meeting up with Ibis and Jacquel, funeral directors. Interlude: Salim, a recent immigrant from Oman, meets a taxi-driving ifrit on the bustling, alien streets of New York City.
The first thing I noticed rereading these chapters were all the references to birds, which I’d never really zeroed in on before, somehow. But it’s like one of Tippi Hedren’s flashbacks up in here, between Odin’s raven, the crow infestation Shadow reads about, Sam Black Crow herself, a couple of hawk (possibly Horus) sightings, and the birds clustered over the Mississippi, “moving in some desperate Brownian motion” (I love that line). Once you pick up on it, it really reinforces the sense of a coming storm in a very literal sense, the idea that nature is preparing for a major cataclysm.
As Emily pointed out last week, the talking raven (do we ever find out if it’s Huginn or Muninn?) is such a great character, adding a grim comic relief to Shadow’s post-massacre flight through the woods. I’m wondering if we’re supposed to sense some connection between Sam and the raven(s), though – not that she’s one of them, but given her name, maybe there’s a bit of an echo between the raven who guides him out of the woods and the girl called Black Crow who accompanies him for part of his journey?
As commenter StrongDreams has pointed out, Sam later says “…thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman,” which ties in with the “Coming to America, 14,000 B.C.” interlude at the end of Chapter 13, featuring the oracle Atsula and the mammoth god Nunyunnini. So Sam Black Crow is, to some extent, in touch with the divine; she also mentions her belief in the ass-kicking power of “White Buffalo Woman,” and first appears while Shadow is questioning the Buffalo Man, interrupting his dream/vision. I’d argue that she’s tied to the earliest American gods (or the people who preceded the gods), both by her previous incarnation as Atsula and her Cherokee blood. In which case there’s another layer to her connection with Shadow, beyond her obvious intelligence and easy acceptance of the unlikely and unbelievable.
Sam also provides another example of Shadow’s penchant for bonding with strong, capable women, and I’ve always wondered if the new gods are actively trying to exploit that penchant by approaching him through the character of Lucy Ricardo. What an odd choice…for sheer entertainment value, the bizarro Dick Van Dyke show and audience with Lucy is great, but clearly “wacky, chain-smoking ditz” isn’t going to appeal to Shadow. Then again, talking about yourself in terms of an “on-line mall” shows that the new gods might be used to dealing with a more complacent audience…not someone who buys into an austere, old-school code of ethics, as Shadow does. As in the case of the Technical Boy, the new gods come off as dangerous, but also ridiculous and a bit desperate, here….
Samantha is such a wonderful character, and it’s pretty telling how quicky Shadow opens up to her in a way he hasn’t to anyone in the book so far. I always found it interesting that she asks if Shadow has Native American blood, though. She’s the second person to ask Shadow what race he is – the first being the awful prison guard at the beginning who asks Shadow if he has “nigger blood” in him. Regardless of Shadow’s heritage, I feel that runs into another instant where people see in Shadow what they want to see in him. The guard is a prejudiced jerk and assumes Shadow is the sort of person he is bigoted toward becuase he doesn’t like him. Sam thinks Shadow might have Native American blood because she finds a connection with him and is herself part Cherokee. But no one ever seems to be able to pick out what Shadow truly is.
There’s something very right-feeling about having Lucy be the person the TV god picks to talk to Shadow with. I’d argue that if you ever needed to sum up the history, the whole point of television, to anyone you could probably do it with one I Love Lucy episode. Which I think is very much the point. You couldn’t speak to Shadow through a character from M*A*S*H* or The Dick Van Dyke Show. It just wouldn’t be the same.
The section with Salim is another of my favorite vignettes in the book, and one of the most ambiguous sections, I think. Salim’s encounter with the jinn results in them basically switching lives, or at least in Salim taking up the jinn’s life in America. On the one hand, this could be viewed as the act of a trickster – the type of jinn that the cab driver is, an ifrit, is know in Arabic literature for cunning and is more often a danger to protagonists than a helpful hand. On the other hand, what the ifrit offers Salim is a new beginning, a chance to reinvent himself. Not a brilliant chance that’s full of promise, but a chance that offers more choices than he seemed to have before. It’s interesting that the jinn keeps insisting that he does not grant wishes (which an ifrit would not do, it’s true), but arguably grants an unspoken wish for Salim. And in that way, this small aside almost reads as a modern day Aladdin. It’s bittersweet, but it always leaves me feeling strangely happy.
Part One: Shadows; Chapter 8:
Shadow gets a history lesson from Mr. Ibis, attends an autopsy, and accepts an offer to stay and work at the funeral parlor with Jacquel, Ibis, and Bast. As he goes about his first day of work, we get a glimpse back at the scrawny, bookish kid who had grown into big, strong Shadow; later, he dreams about having sex with Bast in human(ish) form. He wakes, healed and comforted, realizing that it wasn’t entirely a dream. Mad Sweeney shows up in Cairo, desperately begging Shadow to return the gold coin (which Laura now wears on a chain). Realizing that he is doomed, Mad Sweeney drinks himself into oblivion but sticks around for his wake. Shadow relearns the leprechaun’s coin trick and wakes to find Wednesday waiting, impatient to get back on the road.
The interval with Ibis and Jacquel is definitely one of my favorite episodes in American Gods…just the basic premise of Thoth and Anubis running a funeral parlor is brilliant, and what better place for Shadow, still stuck in some kind of quiet spiritual limbo, than his own above-ground underworld, the last stop before the afterlife? It’s interesting, because as much as Shadow fits right in, there’s also the odd moment when he finds himself contemplating suicide, holding a razor to his throat…Bast interrupts and the moment passes, but that scene seems to indicate that Shadow is perhaps a little too comfortable in the house of the dead….
What I enjoy most about this chapter are the lessons in history/mythology that we get from Mr. Ibis (and occasionally Jacquel): Egyptian traders traveling up the Mississippi over 3500 years ago, the way the Civil War changed local perceptions of the gods themselves, America serving as Grand Central Station for more than ten thousand years; it’s all fascinating. Not to mention the random snippets about long-lost Mithras and Set and rumors about hitchhiking Jesus: the Egyptian gods appreciate a good story.
I’d argue that in many ways, Mr. Ibis/Thoth is the unsung hero of this novel – I’m almost surprised that he doesn’t play a bigger or more active role in the outcome of the narrative, but then again, his stories help to tie the whole book together. Of course, the Egyptians believed that without the words and writings of Thoth, the gods themselves would not exists – existence depends on his words, his stories. Furthermore, Thoth was responsible for mediating between gods, and between good and evil, ensuring that balance was kept between the two, so I suppose it makes sense for him to be a relatively neutral party, in spite of his apparent friendship with Odin.
Bast, on the other hand, has no problem playing favorites (first with Dream in The Sandman and now with Shadow). She is, of course, a ferocious protector goddess, but also associated strongly with motherhood; once again, Shadow finds himself comforted and watched over by a strong female presence. In terms of mythology, Emily’s already pointed out that there’s a lot of interesting subtext happening around suns and moons, and you could probably write a whole paper on the Egyptian deities in this novel and their relationships to heavenly bodies (Bast was originally associated with the sun but was later worshipped as a lunar deity; Thoth is heavily connected with the moon, Horus was supposed to have the sun as his right and the moon as his left, etc); clearly, Mr. Shadow Moon is in good company with these folks.
It’s interesting that Shadow exhibits a preoccupation with conspiracies throughout this chapter: first the conversation about Kentucky Fried Chicken, and then his reflections on Reader’s Digest as a supposed front for the C.I.A. (also, why does Reader’s Digest keep coming up? I haven’t actually seen one in years, although I feel like they were everywhere back in the 80s). I suppose that after his incarceration by Stone and Wood, he’s feeling (rightfully) paranoid…though maybe not paranoid enough – I’d worry more about Mister Wednesday than Colonel Sanders, but Shadow’s loyal to a fault.
I’d also like to point out that the article he falls asleep reading is called “I Am John’s Pancreas” – conceivably a nod to Fight Club and it’s repeated “I am Jack’s…” quotes (Palahniuk’s novel came out in 1996, the movie in 1999). It could also be a reference to I Am John’s Pancreas: the 1986 debut album by the Manchester band A Witness…I wouldn’t be surprised if Gaiman the former music journalist was making an in-joke, here. It’s completely trivial, of course, but getting obsessed with throwaway references seems to be a major side effect of rereading this book for the third or fourth time.
Finally, the reasons behind Mad Sweeney’s demise are still a little bit unclear to me; Shadow was able to take the coin (which points to him being some kind of American royalty, echoing Wednesday’s earlier statement, “You could be King of America”), but because that wasn’t supposed to happen, Mad Sweeney is doomed. I’m assuming that because Laura tore her way through the agents and derailed the plan, Sweeney is being held accountable by Wednesday and Loki for the disruption…but it still seems weird to me that he needs to drink himself to death to avoid their wrath. It seems…overly dramatic; but at least he springs for Jameson and not the dreaded Southern Comfort, this time.
In any case, I love Mad Sweeney’s wake, with its thoroughly entertaining detour through Irish mythology (always very big in the McGovern household). There were no songs referenced in either of this week’s chapters, so no Mix Tape post this week, but if I were putting together a soundtrack for this chapter, I’d go with The Pogues’ “Sally MacLennane” to give Mad Sweeney a proper Irish sendoff (possibly because Shane MacGowan has always been my mental stand-in for Mad Sweeney. It’s a match made in…boozy leprechaun heaven, maybe?)
Thoth and Anubis were always my favorite Egyptian gods as a kid (when I had an Egyptology obsession… okay, I still have one), so I was pretty overexcited to get to this part. I did wonder if there was some suggestion implied in their conversation about the dead, that perhaps Laura can’t turn up at their house, because they of all people would surely know a way of keeping her dead. Nearly every mention of Jaquel, Ibis, and Bast’s actions carefully reference the type of animal they embody: Jaquel has eyes that are “like a desert dog’s,” Ibis pecks at his coffeecake, Bast purrs and has a tongue like sandpaper. The animal personas of Egyptian gods do offer a lot to play with. We’re told that their house is a Queen Anne style house, so for the record, it probably looks something like this:
When Jaquel mentions Jesus, I’m put in mind of a fun old rumor: back when everyone was keen on getting Gaiman and Pratchett to write a sequel to Good Omens, one of them made a comment suggesting that the sequel would be about Jesus getting loose on Earth, and Crowley and Aziraphale having to handle it. Jaquel’s assessment of the guy would play into that sort of story delightfully.
Two bits of info, one probably true and one definitely not: the comment made by Jaquel that Lila Goodchild’s husband probably won’t live long without her is corroborated by actual data. A study was done where they found that when one half of an eldery couple dies, a husband left behind typically did not live very long, but his wife might outlive him by several years. Also, how many of us heard that hilarious KFC rumor? I can confirm that it is definitely false; Shadow’s comment about eliminating the word “fried” is true, and also the move to an abbreviation was popular at the time that they made the change. (Think IHOP.) Anyway, weird asides, but I couldn’t shake them.
It’s easy to forget that so far this journey is going by relatively quickly, but the mention of Shadow’s layered bruises bring that home. I’ve always been lukewarm on Bast’s healing methods, mainly because I would have preferred some creepy dream with lots of ancient rites or something. Also, this is the second time we’ve seen a goddess use sex as a means of actualizing her powers, in a manner of speaking. Which is okay, I guess. I just want more Egypt! Like the shoutout to the beer brewing, which was awesome.
The fact that Mad Sweeney’s medical examiner makes a point of wanting to write down his directions to Jaquel has me wondering if that guy doesn’t know something. Perhaps Jaquel opens up every corpse and takes a slice of all the relevant organs (the ones that would be placed in canopic jars in Egyptians mummification) to eat, even the ones that don’t require autopsy? It could be that someone notices Jaquel doing more work than necessary on the John Does that come through town. Of course, it’s not as though Anubis is about to listen. You can’t tell him how to take care of the dead.
There’s lots more to talk about in the comments below, and please note that next week the Reread hits Part II: My Ainsel, and we’ll be covering an extra chapter, so join us in idyllic Lakeside, Wisconsin for Chapters 9, 10, and 11 (Christmas! Hinzelmann! Vegas! Thunderbirds! Easter!)