In the twentieth (and final) chapter of American Gods, Shadow realizes that Ganesh was sending him a message about the unresolved horrors in the town of Lakeside. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
sweet summer child, this is horrific.
The trunk of the car. What is in the trunk of the car? I am shocked that this book’s pace has taken such an abrupt turn so close to the end. It makes a lot of sense why this is an epilogue; the proper story ended after Shadow helped his wife die, and now he’s tying up the loose ends.
But is it a positive thing or a negative thing in the trunk? I started to think this was a test of some sort, that there was a reward for Shadow in that trunk, something he was promised or maybe even something given to him by one of the old gods because of what he did to save them all. Or maybe Wednesday left something behind?
Whatever it is, Shadow knows he has little time before the ice melts. I think I approached the beginning of chapter twenty with a lot more hope than I should have, and I know it’s because the past couple chapters felt like such a victory to me. Given that, I started off reading this as if some wondrous surprise was awaiting Shadow. Is it a present? MAYBE IT’S A PUPPY!
Why did I think this way? I can’t really explain it any other way, and I should have been more skeptical. Even now, as I go back to re-read how chapter twenty opens, it’s clear that this is written with an air of gloom to it. Beyond logistical reasons, Shadow’s urgency to scramble down to the car, ignoring all the signs that insist he shouldn’t do exactly what he is doing, wasn’t a thing of joy. It was one of dawning horror.
He felt strangely distant as he trudged across the frozen lake, as if he were watching himself on a movie screen–a movie in which he was the hero, a detective, perhaps: there was a feeling of inevitability, now, as if everything that was going to happen would play itself out, and there was nothing he could have done to change a moment of it.
So what’s in the trunk? Oh god, I don’t want to know, do I?
He arrived at the klunker, and even before he reached it he knew that he had been right. There was a miasma that hung about the car, something that was at the same time a faint, foul smell and was also a bad taste in the back of his throat.
Oh fuck. It’s a body, isn’t it? At first, I guessed that it was the body of a dead god, but then I remembered that Wednesday’s body never really deteriorated in the way that a human’s body normal decomposes; I distinctly recalled that Mister Town smelled him, and he did not reek of death. So it had to be the body of a human, and I knew that, and suddenly, all the pieces started to fall into places, and, like Shadow, I knew what this was. Yes, I figured something out just mere seconds before it was revealed so ALLOW ME THIS MINISCULE VICTORY.
Wait, is it a victory if it involves kidnap and murder? That’s probably the wrong word. Shadow is not going to be satisfied by finding the girl who disappeared just after his arrival, and there will be no real victory here. So this becomes unbearable: every second that he takes trying to unlock the car and then open the trunk is just delaying the inevitable. And when it happens, it’s just as awful as you might imagine:
“You were here all the time,” said Shadow to Alison McGovern’s corpse. “Every single person who drove over that bridge saw you. Everyone who drove through the town saw you. The ice fisherman walked past you every day. And nobody knew.” And then he realized how foolish that was.
Tragedy feels like too calm of a word. I am so heartbroken and disturbed by this. And this disaster–is there a better word for this???–only compounds in awfulness. What if this gets pinned on Shadow? How is he supposed to live in this town anymore? Will he live there after this? Oh, cool, we don’t get to find out about any of this because Shadow falls into the lake with the car. And this frightened me:
It was ten past nine in the morning, on March the twenty-third.
The deadpan way in which this is written made me think only one thing: Shadow is going to die. And what about this doesn’t suggest this fate? It would even fit the novel: Shadow would die and return back to the very existence he had chosen in the afterlife. But Gaiman wasn’t quite done with Shadow yet, and this is when I knew that he couldn’t die:
He knew it was dark down there: rationally, he knew it was too dark to see anything, but still, he could see; he could see everything. He could see Alison McGovern’s white face staring at him from the open trunk. He could see other cars as well–the klunkers of bygone years, rotten hulk shapes in the darkness, half-buried in the lake mud. And what else would they have dragged out onto the lake, thought Shadow, before there were cars?
Each one, he knew, without any question, had a dead child in the trunk. There were scores of them down there. Each had sat out on the ice, in front of the eyes of the world, all through the cold winter. Each had tumbled into the cold waters of the lake, when the winter was done.
I can’t. I can’t even deal with this. Fucked up. It’s fucked up. All the girls who went missing from Lakeside….they were all here the entire time, locked into the trunks of cars that sat on the lake until it melted. It is such a foolproof method of disposing of bodies that it frightens me.
But Gaiman wouldn’t give us this detail without giving us the why. So either Shadow would find out by getting out from under the ice, or he’d find out in death. I won’t lie: as more time passed and Shadow remained under the ice, I stopped assuming he could live. I thought we would get our answers in the existence after death. It seemed too impossible to me, and there was too much to answer for. How would he get unstuck from the car? How would he break through the ice? How would he do all of this without drowning?
He gets pulled above the ice. Oh, I thought. So….someone saw him fall in perhaps? Who is it? What’s going on? Why does he want to sleep? WAIT DID HE FALL ASLEEP? Oh, holy shit, he can see the gods, DID HE JUST DIE? WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? WHY. WHY ARE THE GODS LEAVING SHADOW BEHIND. WHY IS THIS BECOMING A VOID. Oh my god, Shadow is dying, isn’t he?
In hindsight, that almost would have been the easy option. Instead, Shadow wakes up, in immense pain, to someone calling him Mike. So it has to be someone from Lakeside who…stuck Shadow in a bathtub? And is now lecturing him about how to properly deal with someone freezing to death? It didn’t seem all that sinister to me at the time, but I was suspicious. It seemed a little too convenient that someone would save Shadow at the last possible moment. It didn’t help that Gaiman waited a long time to reveal that this was Hinzelmann. To be fair, once you think about it…it really couldn’t have been anyone aside from Hinzelmann who would have been out there on that lake. He would be watching to see when the car would drop anyway, especially this late in the season.
For Shadow (and myself, to be honest), though, the situation is just a bit fishy, perhaps too much so:
He wondered how an old man, a man half his height and perhaps a third his weight, had been able to drag him, unconscious, across the ice, or get him up the bank to a car. He wondered how Hinzelmann had gotten Shadow into the house and the bath.
My initial guess? There was someone else. Shadow was barely conscious; how could he know it was only Hinzelmann that dragged him to safety?
“You know what I don’t understand…,” said Shadow. He hesitated, putting his thoughts in order. “I don’t understand why you saved my life.”
“Well,” said Hinzelmann, “the way I was brought up, if you see another fellow in trouble–”
“No,” said Shadow. “That’s not what I mean. I mean, you killed all those kids. Every winter. I was the only one to have figured it out. You must have seen me open the trunk. Why didn’t you just let me drown?”
WHAT THE FUCK. Hinzelmann? He’s a serial killer??!?!?!?!? WHY.
“Well,” he said. “That’s a good question. I guess it’s because I owed a certain party a debt. And I’m good for my debts.”
“That’s the fellow.”
“There was a reason he hid me in Lakeside, wasn’t there? There was a reason nobody should have been able to find me here.”
YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME. So what the hell kind of deal did Hinzelmann strike with Wednesday in order to make this happen? He gets to KIDNAP AND MURDER CHILDREN so that….what? I don’t get it. I DON’T GET IT.
“How long have you been here?”
“And you made the lake?”
Hinzelmann peered at him, surprised. “Yes,” he said. “I made the lake. They were calling it a lake when I got here, but it weren’t nothing more than a spring and a mill-pond and a creek.” He paused. “I figured that this country is hell on my kind of folk. It eats us. I didn’t want to be eaten. So I made a deal. I gave them a lake, and I gave them prosperity…”
“And all it cost them was one child every winter.”
This. This is how this book is going to end, isn’t it? Hinzelmann was a god the whole time. Even more disturbing, he brought people here to try and oust Shadow without gaining the ire of Wednesday. Do you know how creepy that is, the idea that a thought Sam Black Crow had was not her own? That Hinzelmann put it there? And we come to learn that he has done this in some bizarre spin of determinism FOR MANY, MANY YEARS. This is what he has done as a kobold, a household sprite from Germanic folklore: he controls the town of Lakeside. And perhaps he doesn’t technically control all of the free will of these people, but Shadow realizes he controls enough for this to be a terrible, awful arrangement.
But what can he do? Can he kill the god who saved him? Can Hinzelmann even leave? Can he do this to the god after Hinzelmann shows him his true form, a small child, demonstrating how a sacrifice is needed to keep him alive?
He doesn’t have to. Because Chad Mulligan heard the whole thing. And it happens so fast, and it is terrifying, and suddenly, Hinzelmann is dead, a gunshot to the head, a failed attempt at trying to spear Chad Mulligan with a hot poker sparing the life of the local Lakeside police officer. What scares me about this is how robotic Chad seems almost immediately after killing Hinzelmann, shocked by the guilt and shame of having to kill someone and set fire to their house. This has to be Chad’s first kill, isn’t it? He had made a point earlier in the novel to state that not much happens in Lakeside that would require violent reactions on his part. And now he finds out this thing murdered his father, created the lake, dumps kidnapped children in it once a year in a public gamble, and essential controls all outside factors to keep this parade a secret.
This is fucked up.
Did you know I was going to say that this gets worse? Well, it gets worse. That desire that Hinzelmann was able to project onto other people is a whole lot more pervasive than I initially thought. It’s so bad that Shadow believes the god forced Chad to kill him, build him a pyre, and now wants him to kill himself. I DON’T LIKE A GOD WHO CONTROLS PEOPLE LIKE THIS. More so than anyone in this book (and maybe even Wednesday, too!!), Hinzelmann has done a horrific thing. Unforgivable, even!
That being said, I have to admit that it is also kind of creepy that Shadow essentially does the same thing as the kobold: he controls the thoughts inside Chad’s mind. To be fair, he is reversing those thoughts, removing the cloud of negative energy that is causing Chad to want to kill himself, but this is all really strange and uncomfortable to me. But it does something else: it makes me suspicious.
I’ll get to that in a second. Shadow has a lot to do, and so does Gaiman. most important, there are a couple of people who need to be visited, the first of which is Sam Black Crow. Far away from Shadow, she closes the restaurant she works in while she chats with her girlfriend. (ugh, yes more queer women everywhere FILL ALL MY BOOKS WITH THEM) (Also, I suppose Natalie might not be a full-on “girlfriend” at this point, so…lady friend with whom Sam does sexy time with?) (I did roll my eyes juuusstttt a bit at Sam listening to Indigo Girls. Not that there is anything wrong with them! But that’s like revealing a character is a gay dude and then say he’s listening to Erasure. Which is not an insult to Erasure! It’s just that it’s such a common stereotype that it makes me laugh.)
Sam still thinks of Shadow, though in her dreams, where she also has visions of a woman with a buffalo head. I wouldn’t dare presume to know why she would have a dream with that “god” either. Perhaps it’s just as simple as the two of them being connected through their experiences.
Perhaps it’s just as simple as the two of them being connected through their experiences. I don’t think I really need to know why, either, as I’m not sure it’s that important.
What is important is this:
Natalie looked at Sam, then she looked again. Then she said, “Where did you get those from?”
“The flowers. The ones you’re holding, Sam. Did you have them when we left the Coffee House? I would have seen them.”
I genuinely thought that I misread this. Had I missed a word? A sentence? But no, flowers just suddenly appeared in Sam’s hands. And neither of them knew where they came from. And…what?
The thing is, when we see this from Shadow’s perspective, it makes sense for about five seconds. It’s very sweet, and I’m glad Shadow knows that he should discard of any feelings he might have had for Sam. Except….HOW THE FUCK CAN SHADOW DO THIS. How could he hand over those roses without anyone seeing him?
OH. OH. There really are only two options here, aren’t there? Either Shadow died under the ice and this is all some fucked-up after-life/post-death wandering like with Laura, or….
Is Shadow a god? How could that be possible, though? He isn’t aware of it, is he? But he is able to move backstage and no other human is, and this would explain the roses. He slipped backstage to avoid detection. BUT. BUT. BUT OMG WHAT IS THIS BOOK EVEN FUCKING DOING TO ME.
Shadow decides to make one final visit, and my head was spinning by this point in the book. He drives to Chicago, and it’s clear he’s going to see Czernobog, and it’s clear he is seeking out the god in order to fulfill the debt created by that game of checkers. In fact, he even drops so eternal wisdom gained after this whole experience:
“But you know, the only thing I’ve really learned about dealing with gods is that if you make a deal, you keep it. They get to break all the rules they want. We don’t. Even if I tried to walk out of here, my feet would just bring me back.”
I can’t really disagree with him. Ever since he became involved, he hasn’t been able to escape any of this. The gods are intertwined into his life. Hell, they’re intertwined into all life, if you think about it. So why wait around for the day when Czernobog bashes your skull in? Shadow wants to be done with this all, or at least as “done” as one could be with the gods. Despite that the Zorya sisters insist that he leaves, he waits for Czernobog to return. I thought this would be the end of the book: Shadow would die by the force of a sledgehammer to the head.
Shadow closed his eyes and raised his head, and he waited.
The head of the sledgehammer was cold, icy cold, and it touched his forehead as gently as a kiss.
“Pock! There,” said Czernobog. “Is done.” There was a smile on his face that Shadow had never seen before, an easy, comfortable smile, like sunshine on a summer’s day.
Look, I don’t care. This is one of the most adorable things on the face of the planet. I can imagine the sound!!!! But it’s a sign that things have finally changed; multiple times in this chapter, we hear of the “spring” that is arriving. It seems that what Shadow has done has created a ripple in the community of the gods, and the tide has turned for the positive for once.
I don’t know whether Shadow is human or a god, or how much control he had over his own life. I think Gaiman leaves some of that up to our imagination, and I’m ultimately okay with that. But Shadow did change things, and for that, I respect him.
(We’re not done with American Gods yet. Tomorrow, I’ll write about the Postscript, the additional “Jesus” scene, and do a more formal wrap-up. Then: Surprise. Then: More surprises.)