Mythology has always entranced me. Greek or Egyptian, Norse or Celtic, any myth I’ve ever come across has interested me, especially considering what each myth says about the culture it stems from and how said culture sees the world. Myths are man’s way of explaining the world and its phenomena to himself. How the world was created, why there are droughts and floods, how the tiger got its stripes or the elephant its trunk, are all things that man has attempted to explain through myths.
We in America have Native American mythology in our background, but we ran it out and confined it to reservations with its people, relegating that portion of our nation’s heritage to the shadows. We have a bit of folklore, the likes of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill and Calamity Jane, but we as a nation always viewed such folklore merely as stories for amusement, never as truth. Because of this view, our national “mythology” never established itself in our collective consciousness or gained any kind of philosophical power.
Does that mean that America is devoid of mythology? Not in the least. As with the rest of our cultural identity, we have borrowed and stolen gods and myths and legends from a plethora of other nations. When immigrants came, they brought with them their pantheons. And that is what Gaiman’s novel is about: the insane melting pot that is the USA. Not only did people bring with them their old gods, America created her own gods, gods of enterprise and progress and entertainment.
I once heard about a man from India who was staying at the home of some American friends. He told them their home was beautiful, but that he didn’t realize that they worshipped television. The family sputtered in confusion, asking what on earth he meant by that statement. “Well, in India,” he said, “our shrine is the focal point of our common area, as your television is here.” I can totally understand his reasoning. We do seem like a people who worships entertainment, which Gaiman addresses in his book.
This is the story of Shadow, a man fresh out of prison. It’s the story of the old gods brought over to this country from their homelands, gods who have been mostly forgotten and live an impoverished existence compared to the lives they once had, gods who are starving for worship. It’s the story of the new gods, gods of technology and television and gambling, gods whose reign is new and unsteady, gods who worry about being usurped by the old guard. It’s the story of magicians and con artists, and those who aren’t sure which camp they fall into. It’s the story of America, her underbelly and lost highways and gaudy tourist traps. It’s a story told and told well by a British transplant on American soil, who worried that people would ask him how he dared to write such a story when he isn’t American.
American Gods is a strange book, with large chunks of surrealism dotting its landscape like mesas in a desert. This surrealism is a hallmark of Gaiman’s work, and if the main catalyst for both the love and the loathing that his work inspires. For some, this makes the story impossible to relate to, and thus can never connect with Gaiman’s work in any satisfying way. For others, others like myself, it’s exactly what keeps drawing us back to Gaiman’s stories.
Our main character, Shadow, develops little because he basically lets himself be led through the events of the novel by others. That’s just who he is, though, so it worked. None of the characters felt very real, but they weren’t meant to. What felt the most real was America herself. The wonky roadside attractions were based on reality. America used to be littered with them, things like the world’s largest ball of twine and a version of Stonehenge made from graffitied Cadillacs. (Yes, that’s really a thing. I’m not making it up!)
I also know of no other country with such a propensity for road trips. As soon as cars became a luxury more attainable for the population at large, road trips became a national pastime. With the inception of interstates and frequent flyer miles, a lot of the roadside attractions and tourist traps that had been so popular in the 50s and 60s began to flounder and fade along with the highways that led to them. Route 66 is now a ghost road, but it was once the major artery in our nation’s heart. Gaiman does a great job of capturing the soul of road trips, as well as the fading quality of them. He shows America in all her weird, wide, wild beauty, and I love him for it. He dared to write this story because America welcomed him, and his culture was already here waiting for him. Anyone can be at home here, because everyone has brought their home with them. Our identity is comprised of all identities, and that’s what makes America special.
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