Neil Gaiman's "American Gods", an intentionally oxymoronic title, is about the impending battle between the old gods (pick your poison: Odin, Loki, Vishnu, etc.) and the "new" (junk culture: TV, advertising, gambling, etc.). Stuck in the middle waiting to find out his destiny is a mortal man named Shadow. Soon to be released from jail, Shadow looks forward to a reunion with his wife Laura. Sadly, this reunion is not to be (or, it is not to be in the way Shadow envisions it). Shadow, stricken by grief, is thus enlisted in a battle, one that may decide the fate of the world, by a mysterious man named Wednesday.
Similar thematic territory was covered, with much more panache and verve, by Douglas Adams ("The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul") and by Neil's "Good Omens" writing partner, Terry Pratchett ("Small Gods"). Both books took a sidelong glance at the subject of modern deities and found an awful lot of humour there. Gaiman treats his subject with solemnity, and to my mind this is one of the reasons why the book suffers.
Fortunately, the story begins with a dramatic bang. Gaiman sets up his characters well, and then proceeds to create the universe in which they will live. He never betrays the beginning, but at times he lets the narrative (or, to describe it more accurately, the loose assemblage of scenes) get away from him. "I feel like I'm in a world with its own sense of logic. It's own rules," Shadow notes at one point early on. "I'm just going along with it, you know?" This is true, and it begins as a wonderful creation in Gaiman's hands. But later Shadow becomes more frustrated with the direction his life has taken: "Nobody tells me what [the rules] are. You keep talking about the goddamn rules, I don't even know what game you people are playing." This kind of frustration seeps into the reader's thoughts as well. Gaiman takes great care in hiding his motivations from both his character and his audience. You keep expecting a payoff, where the rules are explained, at least implicitly. But that rarely happens, and when it does it is quite unsatisfactory.
He also neglects to assemble a unifying narrative. What we have, instead, is an extended version of 'variations on a theme'. Shadow's adventures, although different and interesting every time, still follow the same basic formula. It becomes tiresome after a while. And what narrative it does have goes on for far too long. "Not only are there no happy endings," someone says near the end, "there aren't even any endings." Too true in this case. Further complicating things is the fact that this book has both an epilogue and a postscript. Gaiman may not have wanted to leave the world he's created, but the reader can't wait for it to finally be over.
All that being said, there are moments here that carry a tremendous amount of stark weight. One scene, at an odd boarding house, has Shadow losing a game of checkers only to face a frightening punishment: a sledgehammer to the head. Thankfully, he's able to put it off. Or is he? Later, we see Shadow in a moment of extreme sacrifice. Gaiman's descriptions of the broken man's thoughts in this chapter are heartbreaking, and believably authentic. The scenes in Lakeside, a small-town safe haven, if taken on their own (with some obvious re-working) might have made a wonderful self-contained short story. I just wish that Gaiman had found a way to string these events together in a unifying manner. Out of nowhere, you find Shadow talking to Lucille Ball, as Lucy Ricardo, on an old black-and-white TV. Or, apropos of nothing, Gaiman's narrator barges in to admit to the fictionality of the story he is telling: "None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor." These are all great bits of writing, but they don't fit together to make a cohesive whole.
"American Gods", for me, is a very frustrating read, for just these reasons. It has boundless potential, but at every turn Gaiman fails to reach the high levels he's aiming for. It makes for a powerful work, one that's often boring, at times quite frustrating, but in moments quite exhilarating. At nearly 600 pages, anything is going to be hit or miss. I was just hoping for a few more hits from Gaiman, a writer I've admired in the past. I admire him here, too. I just didn't enjoy him that much.