In the first chapter of American Gods, Shadow serves three years in prison for armed robbery, but the real tragedy begins when he is let out a few days early and a man in a pale suits seems to take advantage of this. Also WHAT THE HOLY FUCK WAS THAT. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to start American Gods.
AUTHOR’S SUPER IMPORTANT NOTE: I forgot to state that I am reading the TENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION of this book, not the original.
After watching “The Doctor’s Wife,” that goddamn piece of beauty in the sixth series of Doctor Who, I knew that I was just missing out on life because I’d not read one single piece of literature from Neil Gaiman. Not a short story, a piece of prose, and certainly not a single one of his books. I read “The Problem With Susan” not long after LeakyCon, when three wonderful women I met all gushed at me that my hatred for how The Chronicles of Narnia series ended would be validated by Neil Gaiman and that is just a perfect thing to say to me to convince me to read something. Right??? RIGHT?
I liked doing a one-off book after The Hunger Games, and thought it would be a great pattern to get myself into. Plus, it allows me to explore things I might otherwise would have skipped. In this case, a whole lot of people have all-caps begged me to read this book, so why not? (They’ve also said the same for Good Omens, and I promise to do that one, too.)
Here’s what I knew about American Gods before I started it:
- Neil Gaiman wrote it.
CLEARLY I AM WELL PREPARED FOR THIS BOOK, AM I RIGHT???? This means that ANY HINTS OF ANY KIND IN ANY WAY will probably spoil me. I have a 0% frame of reference for this book. NOTHING. I don’t even know if this book is weird or depressing or scary or anything so PLEASE DO NOT RUIN THIS FOR ME.
oh god NEW BOOK NEW BOOK
Shadow had done three years in prison.
Well, that’s one way to open your book. By the end of the chapter, it doesn’t seem like Shadow is a nickname for anything. This character is just named Shadow. And you are to accept that. Gaiman makes no attempt to give us much of the reasons behind why he served three years in jail beyond the armed robbery. I kind of like this because it’s so matter-of-fact. Shadow robbed someone. (At gunpoint, I assume?) He got caught. He served three years of a six year sentence. He makes no excuses for why he’s there, and instead, Gaiman chooses to focus on the routines that Shadow develops to get him through the three years he’s in jail.
I can tell that Shadow being in jail is merely the backdrop to set up this story, as Gaimin doesn’t spend that much time in this setting. We’re introduced to a small handful of characters in the process–Low Key, the Icemen, Sam Fetisher, to name a few–who flesh out this prison more with character than detail. Which I’m ultimately fine with, by the way; what happens after Shadow gets out of prison is more important to me. In that sense, the use of the prison sets up Shadow for tragedy: it’s where we meet his wife. It’s where he learns to be so stoic. It’s where he learns to survive on hope. Once you think about it, that is what fuels his three years in prison. He makes that list of the three things he will do once he gets out of prison, and all three of those things rely entirely on the concept of having hope for the future.
I was surprised that Gaiman wrote in the character of Laura in the way that he did. I suppose I’m so used to the trope using in fiction and in TV/movies that people don’t have loved ones waiting for them when they get out (or, they do, but then they find out they’ve ~moved on~) that my brain just went to that same place. But Laura loves Shadow. (The whole puppy thing was a bit too much for me because I love puppies and now I have the image of a straight couple calling each other “puppy” and putting their faces in each other’s crotches and you are ruining the word “puppy” and I am going to take that word back BOOK BE DAMNED.) There’s no exception to it. There’s no, “She loved him, BUT…” She just loves him, and by all appearances, she waited three years for him, going as far as to buy a flight for him to come home.
But then the storm begins to move in. I’m not sure the scene with Sam Fetisher acts as anything aside from introducing the mysterious dread that Shadow begins to feel. Initially, I thought Gaiman was describing something I’ve experienced whenever I have something exciting approaching. I’ll use my LeakyCon panel as an example. As the event got closer, my mind, which tends to fall on the side of cynicism more than anything else, began to wonder what was going to happen to make everything awful. It is a largely irrational way to think, but I can’t control my thoughts. It does mean that when things go well (like my panel did), I end up pleasantly surprised. But it becomes this sensation of oncoming doom, so a part of me just hoped that this was what would happen to Shadow. He’d discover that the “storm” that’s coming is merely his own doubt.
oh i am so unprepared.
I did like this part of Sam and Shadow’s conversation:
“It’s like…what do they call those things continents ride around on? Some kind of plates?”
“Tectonic plates?” Shadow hazarded.
“That’s it. Tectonic plates. It’s like when they go riding, when North America goes skidding into South America, you don’t want to be in the middle. You dig me?”
CALLING IT. THIS IS FORESHADOWING. I mean, he uses “America” twice and it’s referenced in the title of the book. So it’s just a matter of figuring out what this conflict is. And how Shadow’s going to be standing right in the middle of it. Because COME ON he totally is going to be right in the middle of it, isn’t he?
I don’t like Wilson. I don’t feel like I have to justify this, as Gaiman makes him really easy to hate. Relentless racist? CHECKING OUT OF CARING ABOUT HIM. Thankfully, seems I won’t have to care about him again.
They stood there in silence for a couple of minutes. Shadow tried to tell himself that everything was all right, that on Friday morning he’d be on the plane up to Eagle Point, but he did not believe it himself.
That feeling I had early? My hope that Shadow was merely doubting himself and that’s all there was to it? It ended right here. Why would the warden want to see Shadow right before it was time for him to be released? They don’t just hand out presents before you’re let out of prison. This can’t be good, and I hate agreeing with Shadow on this.
Unfortunately, this is what I should have done all along:
“You’ve served three years. You were due to be released on Friday.”
Were? Shadow felt his stomach lurch inside him. He wondered how much longer he was going to have to serve–another year? Two years? All three? All he said was, “Yes, sir.”
My mind ran through where this could take Shadow. I latched onto one idea: Shadow would have to stay, and Sam warning would have to do with something happening in the prison, and Sam would be shown to know more than he let on.
“Shadow, we’re going to be releasing you later this afternoon. You’ll be getting out a couple of days early.”
Oh. Oh. Oh, well that’s rather pleasant, isn’t it? That’s not a terrible thing. He’ll get to see Laura early!
“This came from the Johnson Memorial Hospital in Eagle Point…Your wife. She died in the early hours of this morning. It was an automobile accident. I’m sorry.”
This is how you START THIS BOOK? What the fuck? BUT. BUT. BUT. This is what he was waiting for! THIS IS WHAT HE WAS WAITING FOR. WHAT IS GOING ON.
I will say that I really love what Gaiman does with this. He takes Shadow’s grief, bottles it up, and gives us a very dry narration to almost make us feel as if we are just as dead inside as he is. By narrating things o matter-of-factly, it feels as if we’re drifting out of that prison, into that yellow school bus, and onward to a bleak future. What does Shadow even have left?
His mind drifts, imagining other scenarios of his release, trying to figure out where his life can even go at this point. Which is a fine question, I think. Where does he live? Does he still have the job he’s promised? Is he going to fall into the same trap as Johnnie Larch and get thrown back in jail? (Oh my god that story. MY GOD.)
Even from this point, Gaiman sticks to this bleak motif, and I find sticking Shadow in this airport, dealing with his first e-ticket, worried that something will go horribly wrong again, to be some fantastic atmosphere building. Especially since everything just went wrong, it’s natural for him and for us to believe that this will continue. On top of that, he’s a stranger here, in both the literal and figurative sense, and without that possible connection to his wife, Shadow becomes lost. The airport is mystical to him, this entity that lacks any logic, that is out to get him, that’s full of variables that can all further ruin his life. He’s a stranger because the last three years of his life, the prison culture that he’d assimilated to in his own way makes him feel disparate from everything around them. In short, it’s a recipe for things to continue to go wrong.
But they don’t. Sure, there are delays and a few completely understandable bits of confusion, but things don’t become a disaster for Shadow. He calls his friend about the job he’s supposed to have and leaves a message, and he makes the mistake of listening to his wife’s answering machine. It puts him in an awful mood, but this seems to be the only thing that troubles him. (It’s all internal, which is important, I think.) He sleeps on the plane and no one bothers him. His dreams upset him, especially a rather cryptic dream about a creature with a buffalo’s head telling him about “change” and Shadow being “where the forgotten wait.” Yeah, what are you talking about buffalo head.
“If you are to survive, you must believe.”
Okay, hello foreshadowing that makes no sense to me WHAT DOES THIS MEAN.
Even after a particularly brutal bout of a storm, the plane lands safely, and despite missing a connecting flight, Shadow finds his way on to another plane. This complicated method to get aboard a plane to Eagle Point does have a purpose, though, and that’s to introduce us to Mr. Wednesday and to increase his inherent creepiness.
Oh, Mr. Wednesday. We are introduced to him in a way that made me think of so many examples of hopeless assholes in airports. I’ve flown a lot in the last three years, traveling for my last job and because I’ve reached a point where I can afford to go out of California. In those three years, it is without fail that I observed some of the most courtesy-lacking, entitled, shitbag pieces of poo that I have ever seen every time I flew. The man in first class who gives you that look to notify you that you run on his time? I’ve gotten that before when the handle on a piece of carry-on luggage broke and I took ten seconds to pass by him. I’m not a physically violent person and I can’t even remember the last time I laid hands on another person, but I wanted to rip his throat out at that very moment.
So you can imagine how hard I rolled my eyes when a man in a pale suit in first class gives Shadow a grin and points to his watch, reminding Shadow that he’s made this guy wait. Oh, fuck you, dude. So you can then imagine my reaction when Shadow’s seat is taken and he has to sit next to the very same guy in first class. OH, THIS IS GONNA BE REAL GOOD.
“You’re late,” said the man, and he grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all at.
“I said, you’re late.”
OH, SHADOW, RESIST THE URGE TO DESTROY HIM. YOU ARE ALMOST HOME. Thankfully, he does, despite that the man in the pale suit continues to be presumptive and rude to the flight attendant AND he makes a faux attempt at being concerned with Shadow making his flight.
“That was kind of you.”
The plane sat restlessly ont he ground, engines throbbing, aching to be off.
“Kind my ass,” said the man in the pale suit. “I’ve got a job for you, Shadow.”
I’M SORRY WHAT????? WHAT? Naturally, Shadow is just a bit upset with this concept. The man in the pale suit keeps insisting that Shadow ask him what job he means, but he resists. A legal job with good pay, benefits, ready for him immediately? YEAH, I THINK IT’S OKAY TO BE SUSPICIOUS. Shadow even points out the inherent impossibility that this man is supposed to be here: Shadow never intended to be on this plane in the first place. The death of his wife was the random life variable that set this all in motion, so how could this man be here in this capacity? How could he know about his wife? WHY DOES HE SPEAK IN CRYPTIC, AMBIGUOUS ANSWERS? Why does he say Shadow can be “King of America” and how is that even possible? WHY DOESN’T HE GET OFF THE PLANE? No, seriously, the flight attendant CLEARLY interacted with him, so it’s not like Shadow imagined it. WHAT THE FUCK?
I have a lot of questions, as you can see.
Shadow rents a car (to drive home? to go to another airport?) and I love that Gaiman drops us into the idea of American backroads so quickly. I think a lot of people who don’t live here can’t fathom how the US works, since our country is so impossibly large. Like…the idea that it takes DAYS to drive from one side of the country to another is unbelievable to most people, but that’s not the only element to it that could be perplexing. I’ve been to 38 of the 50 states, and there’s so much to it that isn’t near major cities, especially once you get to the seemingly endless expanse in the center. Jack’s Crocodile Bar? I’m sure it’s real. Maybe not called that, but it’s real. Somewhere in America, we have a bar owned by a man named Jack full of reptiles, and it’s off a small highway, hidden by arching trees, full of the same five locals and the occasional traveler.
And just when I’m enjoying this bit of Americana awesomeness:
There was a polite grunt from the urinal immediately to his right, although he had heard nobody come in.
The man in the pale suit was bigger standing than he had seemed sitting on the plane beside Shadow.
YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME.
“So,” said Mr. Wednesday. “You’ve had time to think, Shadow. Do you want a job?”
;JALSDJF;KALDJSF;ADFJ;KADS WELL THIS IS PRETTY AWESOME.
Somewhere in America
LOS ANGELES. 11:26 P.M.
Oh, you sly dog, Gaiman. We switch perspectives to focus on a slightly awkward scene between a sex worker and her client. It’s a bit weird at first, admittedly, both because I have no idea what this has to do with anything, and because there’s an unfortunate implication in the section about the man thinking this woman was also a man. (Okay, WE GET IT. Granted, this was written years ago, but let’s all just drop the boobs = women thing, okay?) Gaiman’s narration is also a bit more like third-preson present, as the paste tense is dropped. Why are we in this moment? What’s so significant about these two? Why switch to a more urgent style?
Because Bilquis asks the man to worship. And she doesn’t mean that figuratively, in a sexual sense, but literally. Of course, my brain goes to the message the buffalo head told Shadow in a dream. Why is belief so important at this point?
The man is a bit over-the-top and ridiculous with his worship, though I suppose it’s in-character and intentional. As I’m wondering what the hell the point of this is, the two continue going at it, becoming more and more aroused, until the man finally has an orgasm and….um….uh…..
He is inside her to the chest, and as he stares at this in disbelief and wonder she rests both hands upon his shoulders and puts gentle pressure on his body.
He slipslides further inside of her.
what is going on. what is happening. how. how can. i. i mean. what.
so. so this man. was just. and. um. WHAT THE FUCK DID I DECIDE TO READ
Bilquis answers the man’s phone after…consuming him? I don’t even know what to call that.
“Yeah?” she says. And then she says, “No, honey, he’s not here. He’s gone away.”
She turns the telephone off before she flops out of bed in the dark red room, then she stretches once more, and she closes her eyes, and she sleeps.
Oh, what have I got myself into?