In the tenth chapter of American Gods, Shadow settles into life in Lakeside, and then Mr. Wednesday decides a bizarre trip to Las Vegas is totally necessary. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
You know, it’s a good thing that the writing in this book is so entrancing to me, because we are halfway through American Gods and not a whole lot has happened. So this is my compliment to Gaiman: I don’t even know what the goddamn war really is, and I am pretty stoked on this book so far. He makes a lot of thematic and diction choices in chapter ten that inject the words, characters, and settings with a vibrant life of their own.
Before we get to that, I think I totally missed a reference to Shadow’s past in the chapters previous to this. We open chapter ten with an italicized dream of his. Now I recall that Shadow said he had come to America at one point with his mother. Right? I think I also remember that this was in his childhood, but now I’m not totally sure of this. So while Shadow’s dreams regularly deal with the world of the gods more than anything else, I have a feeling that this might not be one of those moments, though I am also willing to admit that I could be utterly wrong about this. The entire part at the end with the rope, the bonfires, and the “blade” doesn’t fit in with what I know about Shadow, but perhaps Gaiman’s been hiding part of Shadow on purpose. Which…that’s actually kind of fascinating. We are halfway through a novel and Gaiman’s given us no significant backstory on his main character. MY BRAIN GEARS ARE TURNING.
All right, let’s spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the cold. I am a whiny Californian and, despite having lived in Boise, Idaho for seven years, I am that guy when it gets super cold out. Even saying that, I have to qualify it. What’s super cold to me is par for the course for many people, and living in the United States, we run nearly the full gamut of weather variations in our fifty states, from tropical to desert to FUCKING TUNDRA-ESQUE TERROR. But for nineteen years of my life, I lived in Southern California. Riverside got so hot it was criminal outside. We’d suffer from bouts of thick, heavy, and oppressive heat. It wasn’t as humid as–for example–central Florida in the middle of July. (Seriously, I don’t know how any of you are still alive at this point. My god.) Summers in the Inland Empire are dry, with winds that scorch as they blow over your face. We do get humidity from time to time, but the climate is generally to dry for that. When I lived in Long Beach, I discovered the joy of an ocean breeze; it’s one of the big reasons I decided to finally leave Los Angeles. I needed that expansive air flowing over me again. While I’ve had to adapt to the cooler temperatures and the constant wind of San Francisco, as well as many more rainy days than I’m used to, I still live in California. Our weather really isn’t that bad. The Bay Area sinks to just above freezing during the winter, and most of the time hangs out many degrees above that. Our summers are warm, but San Francisco itself sits under a near-constant state of wind.
You know what that means? I’m an asshole pretty much everywhere else.
The truth is that I love cold weather, so my whiny voice only comes out in more extreme examples. In March of this year, I spent time in New York City and Toronto. (OH GOD I WANT TO GO BACK SO BADLY.) On my very first night in NYC, I got to experience thundersnow for the first time. It’s a real thing, y’all! And I did not wine for a second, surprisingly. I do have fond memories of snowy winters from my time in Idaho, and I came prepared with layers of clothing. As thunder cracked across the sky and rain, snow, and hail all plunged from the angry clouds that formed over the city, I was overjoyed by the experience. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, and it made the city look absolutely gorgeous. I stomped in the inches of snow that quickly piled up in the street. I was happy to feel the wind against my face, to see my breath, to look up at the sky and see the lights from the cities give the thick charcoal a surreal nebula glow.
I saw all of this because I spent two days in Toronto. And it was FUCKING COLD. It was well below freezing and I heard other Canadians complaining about the cold. I THINK IT’S FAIR ENOUGH TO SAY THAT IT IS COLD WHEN PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN TORONTO SAY IT IS COLD. If I wasn’t hanging out with some amazing friends, eating spectacular vegan food throughout the city, and basically discovering how fantastic Toronto was, I’m pretty sure I would have just given up and froze to death. HOW. HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT. I bring this up because…okay, you know Shadow’s trek to town? And how he knows in about four minutes what a goddamn fool he is? And how he feels like his bones are freezing. THERE YOU GO. That is what I felt like. It seemed like nothing could make me feel warm. I must have drank fifteen cups of coffee while in Toronto in order to offset the frost that was settling in my blood. At one point, I’m pretty sure I yelled at my friend, “WHAT IS YOUR SECRET. WHAT SORCERY DID YOU USE TO LIVE HERE.” I was a complete and total asshole about it! I mean…holy god, I have been in cold weather plenty of times, but this was a whole new experience. It was below zero! And MILLIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE DONE IT BEFORE. This is what happens to you when you grow up in California. omg WEATHERPRESSION.
I am then reminded after all of this that American Gods was written by someone who had just moved here. And my head explodes. Look, I know that there’s this stereotype that small-town America is full of fools and bigots and racists and the worst simpletons alive. And while non-metropolitan cities might have a tendency towards intolerance, I always feel strange about that stereotype. There’s generally a layer of gross lower-class attached to it, that a person would rather be anything other than a poor person in a small town where they don’t have television or nice cars or BLAH BLAH BLAH YOU ARE BORING ME WITH YOUR CLASSISM. Depending on where you are in the United States, YES. Yes, there are incredibly bigoted people who live there. (Hey, guess what? They’re also in Los Angeles and New York City and Chicago, too! the world is shocked by this stunning revelation.)
What Gaiman nails down with a frightening accuracy is the kindness and homely nature of small towns. (Also, he used the term, “yoopie.” OH MY GOD HOW DID HE KNOW THAT TERM!!!!!) I have friends who live in towns where doors are not locked ever. I have relatives in Arizona and Hawaii who are the pinnacle of humility and kindness, and none of them live in a metropolitan city. I am just happy ~and so full of feelings~ to see this concept portrayed in a positive light instead of falling into the familiar trope that small towns are full of secret serial killers. (To be fair, being brown, tattooed, and pretty obviously queer, I have met some of the most bigoted, horrific people in small towns. oh god oklahoma and kansas YOU HAVE SCARRED ME FOREVER.)
On top of this, Gaiman does this thing with his narration of Missy Gunther that took me a second to understand, but once I did, I was on board. Just through her narration, I already have an image of her sitting in my head. He does not quote her dialogue at all, unlike what he did with Chad Mulligan or Mabel. Instead, her words become a stream-of-conscious form of diction. One word rolls off another, phrases and bits strewn together with commas and brief pauses. Missy Gunther talks and her voice is a constant stream of noise for nearly every second that she is with Shadow. It never comes across as rude or presumptive, though, and Shadow never expresses irritation. This is just who she is and how she talks. It’s how she relates information to people around her. I mean, seriously, she gives him a fake passport to Lakeside. God, she probably has macrame cats and owls on the wall and a cookie jar that yells when you open it and I JUST WANT TO BE HER BEST FRIEND FOREVER.
I know that I am personally drawn to large cities. It’s where I am at this point in my life. I want to live in New York City by the time I’m thirty-five, maybe spend a year or two in Chicago as well. I’d spent so much time in Southern California that the idea of leaving that place was horrifying to me, but ever since moving to the Bay last year, I now feel like I can just uproot whenever I want. And I think I want to live in a town like Lakeside, where everyone knows each other, where people make small talk that never seems encroaching or forced, where people actually know who their neighbors are, even if they don’t like them. It’s something different, and I crave that sensation, too.
For Shadow, it’s a totally new experience as well. It feels a bit strange saying this, but when he goes to meet Marguerite Olsen next door to him, I suddenly got this picture in my head of him babysitting and getting along with kids really well. Which is weird! I don’t even know Shadow that well! But he seems like he would have a blast with children. But the thought is fleeting because Mr. Wednesday soon arrives, ready to steal Shadow away to Las Vegas.
Ugh. Las Vegas. Nevada is not my favorite state in the U.S. because Reno is in it and there is maybe one other city in the United States that I dislike more than Reno (TULSA, OKLAHOMA, WHY ARE YOU REAL). Let me just start by saying this: Neil Gaiman captures the Las Vegas strip with an eerie sense of perfection. That is what Las Vegas is like, and add in the fact that I’m both vegan and straight edge, and Las Vegas has virtually nothing to offer me. I grew up poor, so the concept of gambling is basically the most ridiculous thing in the world to me. To be fair, I’ll play slots that have game bonuses attached to them because at the very least, I am somewhat entertained, but that’s about as far as I’ll go. I am not a fan of flushing money away.
Las Vegas is, simply put, one of the most garish and American things on the face of the planet. And I’ll go there if I have friends to make the experience awesome, but otherwise….no.
I don’t know why this section is in italics, and I don’t know who the man in the charcoal suit is, but I put two-and-two together and realized that whoever he is, people can’t seem to remember him at all. OMG IT’S THE SILENCE. Right? He’s in the room with the men counting money, but they don’t acknowledge him. Shadow can’t even remember his name just after it is spoken. Gaiman also doesn’t give us a word of his dialogue, and I think that’s remarkably significant. Why do we get the waitresses words, but not his? I understand that he’s a god that Wednesday is trying to recruit, but, again, that’s about as much as I do understand at this point.
When Mr. Wednesday heads outside after managing to convince this other god to join him, Shadow actually gets some of his questions answered. Mr. Wednesday had offered up Soma to this god, and he actually explains what it is:
“To take the analogy further, it’s honey wine. Mead.” He chuckled. “It’s a drink. Concentrated prayer and belief, distilled into a potent liqueur.”
I like that it took Gaiman spelling it out for me to fully get this. But it takes a great deal of belief to sustain a god, so I imagine for the “forgotten” gods, Soma is a rare commodity for them. But does Soma work for any god? Or does each one have a specific Soma that works for them?
I admit how fascinated I am with the way that Gaiman brings about the world of the gods into the story, even if I haven’t figured any of this out on my own just quite yet. (Well, I may have, BUT I DON’T KNOW.) There’s an entire underground society to it, and Gaiman also takes existing mythology to flesh out these characters lives. We get the eighteen charms that Odin possesses, which sadly do not include bringing a person back to life. Shadow puts forth the idea that the coin that Mad Sweeney gave him was what raised Laura from the dead. (Wow, that seems so obvious now in hindsight.) All of these details–things that are utterly impossible in our world–make up the fabric of this universe. It’s all quite fantastical, but then there are moments like this to ground it all:
Shadow wanted, wanted very much, to reach out and put his hand over Wednesday’s gray hand. He wanted to tell him that everything would be okay–something that Shadow did not feel, but that he knew had to be said. There were men in black trains out there. There was a fat kid in a stretch limo and there were people in the television who did not mean them well.
He did not touch Wednesday. He did not say anything.
Later, he wondered if he could have changed things, if that gesture would have done any good, if it could have averted any of the harm that was to come. He told himself it wouldn’t. He knew it wouldn’t. But still, afterward, he wished that, just for a moment on the slow flight home, he had touched Wednesday’s hand.
Oh. Oh, no, I’m totally fine. Just coughing a bit from an itch in the back of my throat. No, no, I’m okay.