Guys. Guys, guys, guys…this is a really, tremendously exciting day. First, it’s Beltane…so, to all of my fellows out there, who’s got the hook-up for the best Great Marriage party?! No…seriously…have a Blessed Beltane, if that is what today is to you. Also…Avengers! After many, many (many, many) moons of waiting, it’s here! No spoilers shall pass these fingers, I assure you. Third, and much more blog-related, is the fact that I get to recommend/pair a book that is incredibly special to me today: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
It’s sometimes said among Gaiman fans that one is either a Neverwhere person or an American Gods person. I’m not sure what it says about a person or what it means, but it generally seems to be true. And I am an American Gods person. The book blew my ever-loving mind the first time I read it…for a number of reasons. First, it seemed to get America so well…its descriptions were lovingly rendered, but without sentimentality or pride; they could be quite incising, actually. And, as many of you are no doubt aware, Neil Gaiman is himself British. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America and seemed to capture our new nation in a way that no one here could, it took someone with a foreign eye to see this country so well.
American Gods begins with Shadow, whose last name we learn is Moon, but we shouldn’t judge him for that. We never actually learn his first name during the course of the novel, however; that is reserved for a novella in one of Gaiman’s short story collections. Shadow is in prison. We later learn it is because of a robbery gone wrong, and an attempt on Shadow’s part to keep his beloved wife, Laura (who put him up to it), out of the picture. Shadow is a big dude. You will know this because it’s how everyone reacts to him, just before asking if he’s of mixed race. He is quiet and prone to acceptance; it is a large part of his character that he is not the primary agent of most of his own story. So when he finds out that he’s being released from prison a few days early because his wife has died, he quietly gathers his things and heads home. It is on the flight back to Indiana that he meets Mr. Wednesday, and where the story begins.
You see, there’s a war going on in America. A war between old and new. Wednesday represents the old, and he wants Shadow to be his bodyguard. Circumstances lead to Shadow accepting that offer, and he goes off with Wednesday on a tour of America collecting allies, meeting the enemy, and finally playing a very important role in the climactic scene. After all, he has to find his agency eventually, right?
American Gods is not, I have to tell you, a fast-paced, action thriller. It meanders its way across the nation and across its many identities. It is full of vignettes that don’t necessarily contribute to the plot except that they weave the tapestry of Gaiman’s America ever tighter and ever brighter. You get a sense, reading American Gods, that Gaiman quite loves the United States (he did move here, after all), and it’s a love that is somewhat unique because it is an adopted homeland. American Gods is a great reminder that the American story is the immigrant story; it is the story of coming here and becoming American, even if you never really shuck everything of who you were before. And, ultimately, there is the land…and it is the land that has the power.
Neil Gaiman also pulls a brilliant piece of wordplay in this novel that made me feel dumb for weeks afterwards. He then pulled the SAME BLOODY TRICK on me in Marvel 1602! *grumble grumble*
OK…on to the pairing. What to pair with a novel like this? Well…there are a few options. The first is something a bit more general…in the spirit of the book. The others are all reflections of individual moments within the story itself. First off…find a local brewery. Local to you, if you’re in America; find something that isn’t super commercial (if you can) if you’re from elsewhere. Something with some local flavor, that reflects where it comes from. Pick something off of the menu and drink it. Celebrate the flavor of your hometown or state! If that’s not to your taste, toast to Shadow’s oath with some honey mead, or celebrate the life of Mad Sweeney with some Jameson (Shadow gets the most expensive bottle in the store, but that’s not expected here). Perhaps find, if you can, some dark, delicious Egyptian beer like they drink in the House of the Dead. Or, if wine is more your taste, laugh with Shadow at silly bumper stickers and get yourself a Cabernet. Like America itself, the options are endless…
Well, that does it for me today! As always, it’s a pleasure to share and pair my favorite books. Tomorrow, we celebrate Shakespeare.