In the seventh chapter of American Gods, Shadow meets a hitchhiker on his way to Egypt (sort of), and a lonely man finds comfort and intimacy in a god he believed to be long forgotten. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
This is easily my favorite chapter so far, and you can see just how talented Gaiman is as a writer. He is a clever man and that shows through the way he plays on words and tropes, but he’s not too clever. It doesn’t distract me from how very human Shadow and Sam are, or from how heartbreakingly beautiful the story of Salim is. (AND OMG YES YES YES QUEER DUDES OF COLOR already a win in my book.)
I’ve brought it up numerous times on both Mark Reads and Mark Watches (more on MW, for the record), but one of the few things I find increasingly irritating in fiction is how characters can face confusing or nonsensical situations and don’t take five seconds to ask a question. I don’t like plots driven entirely by miscommunication or a lack of it unless that’s the point of such a thing, and it’s one of the few complaints I had about watching LOST. (CHRIST, IF Y’ALL HAD TAKEN JUST A MOMENT TO ASK EACH OTHER WHAT THE FUCK WAS GOING ON, MAYBE IT WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN A DISASTER.)
Shadow actually hasn’t been asking many questions, but that’s partially because of his stoic nature and because he vowed to do his job without being so inquisitive. But his dead wife just rescued him from a group of violent kidnappers who were part of some group of gods. I’d forgotten how desperate he was to stay out of jail, and Gaiman reminds us of this fear pretty quickly into chapter seven.
Could he be walking in circles? Maybe he would just walk and walk and walk until the warmers and the candy bars ran out and then sit down and never get up again.
Christ. Shadow isn’t a terribly emotionally person, but he becomes a depressing sort of numb after what he’s experienced at this point, and giving up on life is entirely sensical to him now. He doesn’t have Wednesday guiding him anymore and he’s stranded out in the middle of nowhere in the snow with no car, no help, little food, and the bruises and cuts of a night of essentially being tortured. In short, shit is not going well for Shadow.
He reached a large stream, of the kind the locals called a creek and pronounced crick, and decided to follow it. Streams led to rivers, rivers all led to the Mississippi, and if he kept walking, or stole a boat or built a raft, eventually he’d get to New Orleans, where it was warm, an idea which seemed both comforting and unlikely.
Yeah, why is this so depressing to me? Perhaps it’s a familiar sensation to me, especially since my brain does the same thing when I get a bout of depression. The most outlandish ideas suddenly seem to be the only answer and I start putting all my emotional weight into them. For Shadow, a swirl of conflicting and overwhelming emotions press down on his heart and all of this suddenly seems impossible to him.
And then he comes upon the raven.
I actually had to re-read the sentence a couple times to make sure I’d comprehended it properly:
The black bird cocked its head onto one side, and then said, in a voice like stones being struck, “You shadow man.”
I suppose I’m at a point in this book where virtually anything could talk to Shadow and I’m starting to realize just how expansive the concept of gods are. There’s a talking raven. Oh, and Shadow needs to go to Cairo. Well, Kayro, actually, and find Jackal. Who is probably the egyptian god. And you can get to Cairo by following the Mississippi River. It’s here that Shadow wins my heart for doing something most characters don’t: demanding answers.
“Look,” said Shadow, “I don’t want to seem like I’m…Jesus, look…” He paused. Regrouped. He was cold, standing in a wood, talking to a big black word who was currently brunching on Bambi. “Okay. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t want mysteries.”
“Mysteries,” agreed the bird, helpfully.
“What I want is explanations. Jackal in Kay-ro. This does not help me. It’s a line from a bad spy thriller.”
“Jackal. Friend. Tok. Kay-ro.”
“So you said. I’d like a little more information than that.”
THANK YOU. THANK YOU, SHADOW. I know that authors want to control the flow of information to the reader to allow for surprises, but I AM SO GLAD SOMEONE IS SAYING SOMETHING. There is a fine line an author must draw between the two, but I think Gaiman does a good job of making Shadow’s questioning very natural and positions him against…well, a talking crow. Who doesn’t say much at all. And when he thinks the crow wants him to follow it, we get two of my favorite bits of dialogue in the chapter:
“You want me to follow you?” asked Shadow. “Or has Timmy fallen down another well?”
HASD;LFHJAS DFKLAJFSASDF; AS;LKFDJ ASD;LKDFS LOL
“Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,’” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.
I WOULD TOTALLY DO THIS, BY THE WAY. How could you resist?
Gaiman’s charm continues on in this chapter as he pretty much pins down American culture in just a few thousand words. It is absolutely bizarre to me how frighteningly accurate his depiction is of what America is like in the backroads of its states. I know what Culver’s Frozen Custard ButterBurgers looks like. I have never been to one and I am sure they do not exist. I know what those side-of-the-road diners in the Middle of Nowhere look like, I know their clientele, and I know their menus. I know the car lot owners who possess cars you can buy for four hundred and fifty dollars with a full tank of gas included in the purchase. I know the cities named after international locations. York. Paris. Athens. Exeter. London. Dublin. Antioch. Venice. There are more than I could ever name or remember. I don’t know why we do this, and I don’t know why these cities generally have nothing to do with their foreign locales. (Though, to be fair, there are “canals” in Venice, but they are nothing like their namesake.) Is it nostalgia? A way to build a piece of home here in the United States? A chance to capture the glory of a far away place? I don’t have the slightest idea why this happens so often, but there must be a hundred cities in the United States named this way.
I also grew up with a friend who had a Chevy Nova and goddamn if that isn’t a stereotypically American car if I’ve ever seen one, then I don’t know what is. Shadow begins his trip towards Kayro/Cairo, Illinois in his beat-up car. It is on this trip that he meets Sam, perhaps one of the most memorable side characters I’ve come across in literature. Her time in chapter seven is brief; it’s maybe fifteen pages at best, but I was intrigued by her presence and the way her and Shadow were able to talk to one another on a level that skipped right past the superficial, even if they didn’t truly understand what one another was actually talking about. He meets Sam when she wakes him up on the side of a country road; he’d pulled over to get some sleep after nearly causing an accident in the middle of the night. Strangely enough, she interrupts another dream with the buffalo-head god where Shadow actually outright asks the mysterious creature if “these people” are really gods.
My first assumption was that Sam herself was a representation of a god. She still might be, but I think she was truly just a traveler trying to get from one location to another. I found it humorous that she was heading to another city named after a place much larger than it seemed (El Paso, Illinois), which is just beyond Peru, Illinois. She’s both presumptive and charming, and it’s through this that she pretty much decides for Shadow that he’s going to take her to where she needs to go. Still, even if she is this forward, I like that she still demands some sort of reassurance that Shadow isn’t an axe murderer.
“Just tell me you’re not an escaped convict or a mass murderer or something.”
He thought for a moment. “You know, I’m really not.”
“You had to think about it though, didn’t you?”
“Done my time. Never killed anybody.”
Just, “Oh.” At least Shadow is being honest with Sam, and I’m sure she’s met a lot of strange people while hitchhiking down to El Paso. But her and Shadow have this strange chemistry with one another. I think this is the largest bit of dialogue in the book so far, and I was impressed by how easy it was for the both of them to communicate with one another so easily. I liked that Sam immediately asked to see the coin Shadow was going to use to toss to see who would buy food. Sam must have gained a healthy sense of suspicion at this point in her life. I can’t explain how Shadow was able to so accurately guess what Sam does. Second nature of his? Perhaps he’s just good at reading people. I had a friend in college who could do that. And even this small talk, of coin tosses and bronzing, leads way to some intensely personal revelations about the death of Laura and the disappearance of Sam’s half sister’s child, things that strangers don’t really talk about within an hour of meeting one another. Shadow even begins to bring up Herodotus’s Histories, that book he read in prison, suddenly realizing that he thinks it’s possible that way back then, “people used to run into the gods from time to time.”
Shadow is clearly putting the pieces together after what he’s witnessed, and what was once a theory no longer seems to be one anymore. It doesn’t help that Sam suddenly begins to tell a very loose translation of Odin’s story and how Odin was “taken” to America, though I don’t think Sam knows how coincidental this all is. The only reason I think that is because I sort of expected Sam to be along for a much larger part of the ride, but she soon is let off in El Paso, IL. She makes no attempt to ask to come along with Shadow, as I anticipated, but instead disappears into some house near the edge of town. She merely bids Shadow goodby:
She patted him on the arm. “You’re fucked up, mister. But you’re cool.”
“I believe that’s what they call the human condition,” said Shadow. “Thanks for the company.”
“No problem,” she said. “If you see any gods on the road to Cairo, you make sure and say hi to them from me.”
See? She’s charming. And she’s gone, just like that. I wish there was more to her, but she’s just part of the journey, I suppose. That journey takes Shadow to Middleton, a tiny city in the state, where he rents a motel room for the night and…well, things are so goddamn weird in this book. I didn’t regularly watch The Dick Van Dyke Show, but my mother had a nostalgia for a lot of those older television shows. I did watch a whole lot of I Love Lucy, so…yeah, you can imagine how awkward this was.
The picture dissolved into phosphor-dot fuzz. When it came back, The Dick Van Dyke Show had, inexplicably, become I Love Lucy. Lucy was trying to persuade Ricky to let her replace their old icebox with a new refrigerator. When he left, however, she walked over to the couch and sat down, crossing her ankles, resting her hands in her lap, and staring out patiently in black and white across the years.
“Shadow?” she said. “We need to talk.”
American Gods continues to embrace the surreal, and I have no problem embracing that right back. We are introduced to a new god: the god of television. And the god of television, ever so sorry that Shadow has been roughed up twice know, is real certain that she has a perfect job for Shadow, that she can offer more and pay more than Wednesday is offering him.
“Look at it like this, Shadow: we are the coming thing. We’re shopping malls–your friends are crappy roadside attractions. Hell, we’re online malls, while your friends are sitting by the side of the highway selling homegrown produce from a garden cart. No–they aren’t even fruit sellers. Buggy-whip vendors. Whalebone-corset repairers. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends aren’t even yesterday anymore.”
Okay, I get that, but…WHY DO YOU CARE? They’re not taking anything away from you. You can still be exactly who you are now and continue to grow. Is this an issue of arrogance? Control? Supremacy? Shadow, despite being offered so much more than he has now, refuses, and Lucy disappears. (Well, first she offers to flash him and holy awkward NO. For Shadow, though, this is a much more simple issue:
It occurred to him that the reason he liked Wednesday and Mr. Nancy and the rest of them better than their opposition was pretty straightforward: they might be dirty, and cheap, and their food might taste like shit, but at least didn’t speak in clichés.
And he would take a roadside attraction, no matter how cheap, how crooked, or how sad, over a shopping mall, any day.
Amen to that, Shadow. And that’s coming from someone who is rather dependent on technology. If I had to choose, I’d choose the roadside attraction as well.
Shadow finally makes it to Cairo and…god, I love this scene. I love that a road sign points to Thebes. In southern Illinois. When he makes his way to an embankment of the Mississippi, the gods assemble. A long-nosed black dog. A cat. A “crane-like man with gold-rimmed spectacles.” Shadow has done as the raven said and gone down to Cairo to find Jackal.
Shadow dropped the coin and the folded bill back into his pocket. “Okay,” he said. “Which one of you is Jackal?”
“Use your eyes,” said the black dog with the long snout.
Jackal is feisty, I see. The dog leads them to the Ibis and Jacquel Funeral Parlor. So we’ve got the gods Ibis and Jackal. Who is the cat?
Somewhere in America
I cannot begin to properly convey how much Salim’s bit in this chapter just absolutely floored me. The big reveal about his homosexuality shocked me for just a few seconds before I realized that it was all spelled out for me along the way. His story is inherently about loneliness and how the United States can dig a hole of vacancy in people who don’t fit in, who weren’t born here, or in those who come here believing in the “American Dream,” only to find that that Dream comes with a whole lot of Rules and Regulations, exceptions to that promise. I have never lived in New York City, but I’ve visited it six times now. Even as someone who was born in the U.S., and despite adoring the place so much, I do admit how alienating the city is. So much of it operates on knowing the right people, being in the right place, and having the right job, and Salim’s story has bits and pieces that are innately familiar to me.
Gaiman tells his story as one that begins out with promise and excitement. Salim tips everyone. He believes he is days away from making it big. But the subways confuse him, the people take advantage of him, and the cost is overwhelming. His social anxiety not only grows due to the fact that he is originally from Oman, but he fears that nearly anything he does will upset someone, even if this is not the case. He is nice to a fault. He is patient to a fault. And he is rapidly disappointing his brother-in-law back home with his poor sales.
But there is no one part of his story that exemplifies the unique terror of being a foreign person of color in American than Salim waiting in the office of Panglobal Imports on Nineteenth and Broadway in New York City. It represents the hope he has, but the last one. It’s an absurdist situation: Salim arrives early for his 11:00am appointment with a Mister Blanding. As the minutes tick by and they turn into a half hour, then an hour, and then a few hours, Salim continues to wait. “With the eyes of a hurt puppy,” Gaiman describes. The very man Salim is waiting for leaves to go on lunch right in front of him, and when he asks the secretary about this, she unfortunately informs him that Mr. Blanding is busy. With appointments. None of which are with him.
And it’s in this moment that Salim, patient and willing as ever, knows his place. He gives a smile (“a salesman, Fuad had told him many times before he left Muscat, is naked in America without his smile”) and leaves. And THIS IS SO FUCKING DEPRESSING TO ME. He is forgettable and disposable and he is nothing to these people. He is alone in this bizarre country that makes no sense to him.
Salim gets in a cab to meet the man who takes this away from him. I think people might have been shocked by the sudden and graphic nature of what happens here, but I see so much of a precedent for Salim’s act here. He is cosmically lonely, unable to find a single human being to connect to in anyway, and he has found someone from the same country as him. Why else do you think he touched the driver’s shoulder in the way he did? (The first time, though I also think he touches the driver the second time for the same reason, too.)
This is when he finds out that the driver is an ifrit, a supernatural being in Arabic/Islamic mythology. What’s immensely important about this real is this:
“People know nothing about my people here,” says the driver. “They think we grant wishes. If I could grant wishes, do you think I would be driving a cab?”
This is important because as the ifrit eventually finds his way into Salim’s room and the two have sex and Salim cries from joy and sadness, this is our only clue to what happens afterwards. I can only begin to scrape the surface of what Salim feels here, as I’ve only had a periphery experience like this when I finally got to sleep with a man after wanting it for more than half of my life. But it is nothing like this. Salim has found the only amount of hope in American that might be out there.
When he wakes the next morning, the ifrit is gone. So is everything he owns: the knickknacks and his wallet and suitcase and passport and his ticket back home. Instead, the ifrit left behind everything that was his. The ifrit do not grant wishes. Instead, the ifrit gave Salim the opportunity to start over, to escape the terror of his life as a salesman, and to start over as a taxi driver.
No wish granted, but it might even be better.