Riding a New Road Again

A book review of American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Neil Gaiman

Where I read a book affects how I see it, and, ironically enough, I read this one on an airplane. Air travel is one of the few places where I get hours of uninterrupted reading time. However, I read the last pages one of the most car-centric cities I’ve ever been to, a land where people cherish their gleaming vehicles–Los Angeles, California.

I think that this setting, along with changes in y own life, gave me a different perspective on this book than I had when I read it in the nineties. I almost certainly did so while at home, maybe lounging on the couch or maybe lying in bed in my apartment. The rooms would be filled with the humming of US-1 filtering through the trees behind a strip mall, and I would stay awake far too late reading.

When I first read American Gods, I had just read through the author’s Sandman decalogy. That series is now an old favorite, and I’ve read it dozens of times. It follows the character of Morpheus, the personification of the dreamworld. In its thousands of pages, it explores how dreams are the catalysts of change and belief in the real world. Like American Gods does, Sandman has a story told through dozens of characters, delving into the tales of people who some might consider secondary characters.

When the fuzzy, difficult-to-summarize American Gods came out, Mr. Gaiman’s work had not yet diversified; his obsession with mythology had not yet cooled. This book seemed, frankly, derivative, retreading the themes he had explored so well and thoroughly in Sandman. Time and perspective have worked their magic on me; this time, Shadow’s story seemed more intimate and relevant. Some of that could be due to the extra 12,000 words in this printing, but I found it difficult to pin down any events that I didn’t recall reading before. The book seems a little less jumpy than the earlier version, and it was a little easier to lose myself in its pages; but I’m a very different person than I was when, eleven years ago, I first picked up this hardback with it’s now-iconic cover.

Despite an author’s warning to the contrary, American Gods is indeed a guidebook, just not of the usual sort. It’s a guide to America, an America that both rings true but also exists only in fictional form. It tells us the story of a man released from prison to find himself not in the well-planned life he thought he would drop into when he became a free man. Shadow takes a job as companion and bodyguard to the mysterious figure Mr. Wednesday, who is recruiting old-world gods together to fight newer, upstart gods. We meet them while driving from motel to the city to roadside attractions, and these deities of technology and television and travel show us an America that is both alien and oddly, comfortingly familiar.

The settings–houses and cars, motel rooms and restaurants–all portray a bygone America stubbornly refusing to be displaced, and the book has aged well in the last decade. In that decade, I journeyed from suburban office worker to freelance worker, also pedaling thousands of miles on a bicycle, exploring my home state. The background characters in American Gods now seem less like digressions to me (when will he get on with the story? –I would wonder) and more like vital, fascinating background that I can’t get enough of. I can sympathize more with Shadow’s mistakes than I could ten years ago, and I can empathize more with the old-world gods’ desperation.

This review started, in a way, inside a more general essay on what I now think of as “doubled experiences”: Things that we do twice. Not things we do over and over, like a commute or a book we read once a year, but things we love that we seek them out again on one special additional occasion. Reading this book again was one of those special times to me.

I think it’s clear that I love this book, and I would recommend American Gods to anyone who reads. But should you read the “author’s preferred” version? I’d find it hard to choose; other reviews agree that this is a good edition, perhaps a more polished, slightly deeper one. I’d buy the new edition if you don’t have the older one. But should readers “upgrade”? That depends entirely on readers’ individual sensibilities and budget.

It’s difficult for me to decide between these two versions of American Gods; after all, I’ve changed far more than the book has.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry, and The Trouvères.


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