2001 novel by Neil Gaiman
American Gods is a 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman. The novel is a blend of Americana, fantasy, and various strands of ancient and modern mythology, all centering on a mysterious and taciturn protagonist, Shadow.
- (Full text, multiple formats)
- See also: American Gods (TV series)
- The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.
- Shadow shrugged. He could see nothing romantic in a death sentence. If you didn’t have a death sentence, he decided, then prison was, at best, only a temporary reprieve from life, for two reasons. First, life creeps back into prison.
- There are always places to go further down. Life goes on. And second, if you just hang in there, someday they’re going to have to let you out.
- If Hell is other people, thought Shadow, then Purgatory is airports.
- "Like I said, don't piss off those bitches in the airports," said Johnnie Larch, in the back of his mind, "or they'll haul your sorry ass back here before you can spit"
- You work for me now. You protect me. You transport me from place to place. You run errands. In an emergency, but only in an emergency, you hurt people who need to be hurt. In the unlikely event of my death, you will hold my vigil. And in return I shall make sure that your needs are adequately taken care of.
- "He’s hustling you,” said Mad Sweeney, rubbing his bristly ginger beard. “He’s a hustler.” “Damn straight I’m a hustler,” said Wednesday. “That’s why I need someone to look out for my best interests.”
- "I don't like you, Mister Wednesday, or whatever your real name may be. We are not friends. I don't know how you got off that plane without me seeing you, or how you trailed me here. But I'm impressed. You have class. And I'm at a loose end right now. You should know that when we're done, I'll be gone. And if you piss me off, I'll be gone too. Until then, I'll work for you."
Wednesday grinned. His smiles were strange things, Shadow decided. They contained no shred of humor, no happiness, no mirth. Wednesday looked like he had learned to smile from a manual.
"Very good," he said. "Then we have a compact. And we are agreed."
"What the hell," said Shadow.
- "So what are you? A two-bit con artist?"
Wednesday nodded. "Yes," he said. "I suppose I am. Among other things."
- There was a thin young woman behind the counter at the Motel America. She told Shadow he had already been checked in by his friend, and gave him his rectangular plastic room key. She had pale blonde hair and a rodentlike quality to her face that was most apparent when she looked suspicious, and eased when she smiled.
- “How was the funeral?” he asked. “It’s over,” said Shadow. “You want to talk about it?” “No,” said Shadow. “Good.” Wednesday grinned. “Too much talking these days. Talk talk talk. This country would get along much better if people learned how to suffer in silence.”
- Shadow had promised himself a bath when he got out of prison, and Shadow kept his promises. The pizza arrived shortly after he got out of the bath, and Shadow ate it, washing it down with a can of root beer. Shadow lay in bed, thinking, This is my first bed as a free man, and the thought gave him less pleasure than he had imagined that it would. He left the drapes open, watched the lights of the cars and of the fast food joints through the window glass, comforted to know there was another world out there, one he could walk to anytime he wanted.
- Shadow could have been in his bed at home, he thought, in the apartment that he had shared with Laura—in the bed that he had shared with Laura. But the thought of being there without her, surrounded by her things, her scent, her life, was simply too painful. . . Don ’t go there, thought Shadow. He decided to think about something else.
- Sleep took him then, without Shadow noticing. He was walking . . . He was walking through a room bigger than a city, and everywhere he looked there were statues and carvings and rough-hewn images. He was standing beside a statue of a womanlike thing: her naked breasts hung flat and pendulous on her chest, around her waist was a chain of severed hands, both of her own hands held sharp knives, and, instead of a head, rising from her neck there were twin serpents, their bodies arched, facing each other, ready to attack. There was something profoundly disturbing about the statue, a deep and violent wrongness. Shadow backed away from it.
- He began to walk through the hall. The carved eyes of those statues that had eyes seemed to follow his every step.
- A precise voice, fussy and exact, was speaking to him, in his dream, but he could see no one.
- “These are gods who have been forgotten, and now might as well be dead. They can be found only in dry histories. They are gone, all gone, but their names and their images remain with us.”
- Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.
- The light that came into the room from outside was not bright, but Shadow’s eyes had become used to the dark. There was a woman sitting on the side of his bed. He knew her. He would have known her in a crowd of a thousand, or of a hundred thousand. She was still wearing the navy blue suit they had buried her in. Her voice was a whisper, but a familiar one. “I guess,” said Laura, “you’re going to ask what I’m doing here.” Shadow said nothing. He sat down on the room’s only chair and, finally, asked, “Is that you?” “Yes,” she said. “I’m cold, puppy.” “You’re dead, babe.” “Yes,” she said. “Yes. I am.” She patted the bed next to her. “Come and sit by me,” she said. “No,” said Shadow. “I think I’ll stay right here for now. We have some unresolved issues to address.” “Like me being dead?” “Possibly, but I was thinking more of how you died. You and Robbie.” “Oh,” she said. “That.” Shadow could smell—or perhaps, he thought, he simply imagined that he smelled —an odor of rot, of flowers and preservatives. His wife—his ex-wife ... no, he corrected himself, his late wife—sat on the bed and stared at him, unblinking.
- “Normally people who die stay in their graves,” said Shadow. “Do they? Do they really, puppy? I used to think they did too. Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps.” She climbed off the bed and walked over to the window. Her face, in the light of the motel sign, was as beautiful as it had ever been. The face of the woman he had gone to prison for.
- “Babes,” he told her. “You’re dead.” “That’s one of those aspects, obviously.” She paused. “Okay,” she said. “I’m going now. It will be better if I go.” And, naturally and easily, she turned and put her hands on Shadow’s shoulders, and went up on tiptoes to kiss him goodbye, as she had always kissed him goodbye. Awkwardly he bent to kiss her on the cheek, but she moved her mouth as he did so and pushed her lips against his. Her breath smelled, faintly, of mothballs. Laura’s tongue flickered into Shadow’s mouth. It was cold, and dry, and it tasted of cigarettes and of bile. If Shadow had had any doubts as to whether his wife was dead or not, they ended then. He pulled back.
- Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine. First they were driving through countryside, then imperceptibly, the occasional town became a low suburban sprawl, and the sprawl became the city.
- You see, I am the only one of us who brings in any money. The other two cannot make money fortune-telling. This is because they only tell the truth, and the truth is not what people want to hear. It is a bad thing, and it troubles people, so they do not come back. But I can lie to them, tell them what they want to hear. So I bring home the bread.
- If I win, I get to knock your brains out. With a sledgehammer. First, you go down on your knees. Then I hit you a blow with it, so you don't get up again.
Coming to America 1721Edit
- The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for children, or the easily bored. For the most part it is uninspected, unimagined, unthought, a representation of the thing, and not the thing itself. It is a fine fiction, he continued, pausing for a moment to dip his pen in the inkwell and collect his thoughts, that America was founded by pilgrims, seeking the freedom to believe as they wished, that they came to the Americas, spread and bred and filled the empty land.
In truth, the American colonies were as much a dumping ground as an escape, a forgetting place.
- "Keep safe," she told him. "I would not like to hear that you were gone for good."
"It would distress me equally, my dear."
- "That," said Wednesday, driving off, "is the eternal folly of man. To be chasing after the sweet flesh, without realizing that it is simply a pretty cover for the bones. Worm food. At night, you're rubbing yourself against worm food. No offense meant."
- "This is the only country in the world," said Wednesday, into the stillness, "that worries about what it is."
"The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are."
- About the United States
- The quickest way is sometimes the longest.
- I got to tell you, you don’t look too bright. I got a son, stupid as a man who bought his stupid at a two-for-one sale, and you remind me of him.
- I told you I would tell you my names. This is what they call me. I'm called Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and I am the Hooded One. I am All-Father, and I am Gondlir Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory; my wolves are Freki and Geri; my horse is the gallows.
- All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.
- It's easier to kill people, when you're dead yourself … I mean, it's not such a big deal. You're not so prejudiced anymore.
- "It's going to be a white Christmas," said Shadow as he pumped the gas.
"Yup. Shit. That boy was one lucky son of a virgin."
"Lucky, lucky guy. He could fall into a cesspit and come up smelling like roses."
- Shadow and Jacquel
- One day every soldier in the empire has to shower in the blood of your sacrificial bull. The next day they don't even remember your birthday.
- So yeah, Jesus does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.
- "I'll tell you something," he said, as if he had said nothing that day. "You're walking on gallows ground, and there's a rope around your neck and a raven-bird on each shoulder waiting for your eyes, and the gallows tree has deep roots, for it stretches from heaven to hell, and our world is only the branch from which the rope is swinging."
- Mad Sweeney
- The brief winter days leading up to Christmas were like moments of light between the winter darknesses, and they fled fast in the house of the dead.
- There's never been a true war that wasn't fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.
- Mr. Wednesday to Shadow
- "Some things may change," said Wednesday, abruptly. "People, however … people stay the same. Some grifts last forever, others are swallowed soon enough by time and by the world."
- What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore, it knows it's not fooling a soul.
- There is a secret that the casinos possess, a secret they hold and guard and prize, the holiest of their mysteries. For most people do not gamble to win money, after all, although that is what is advertised, sold, claimed, and dreamed. But that is merely the easy lie that gets them through the enormous, ever-open, welcoming doors.
The secret is this: people gamble to lose money. They come to the casinos for the moment in which they feel alive, to ride the spinning wheel and turn with the cards and lose themselves, with the coins, in the slots. They may brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost. It's a sacrifice, of sorts.
- And I know an eighteenth charm, and that charm is the greatest of all, and that charm I can tell no man, for a secret that no one knows but you is the most powerful secret there can ever be.
- Mr. Wednesday
- "San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis."
"Is that so?" said Shadow, mildly.
"Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment—it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s."
- There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr. Ibis in his perfect copperplate handwriting.
That is the tale; the rest is detail.
- There are accounts that, if we open our hearts to them, will cut us too deeply. Look — here is a good man, good by his own lights and the lights of his friends: he is faithful and true to his wife, he adores and lavishes attention on his little children, he cares about his country, he does his job punctiliously, as best he can. So, efficiently and good-naturedly, he exterminates Jews: he appreciates the music that plays in the background to pacify them; he advises the Jews not to forget their identification numbers as they go into the showers — many people, he tells them, forget their numbers, and take the wrong clothes when they come out of the showers. This calms the Jews. There will be life, they assure themselves, after the showers. Our man supervises the detail taking the bodies to the ovens; and if there is anything he feels bad about, it is that he still allows the gassing of vermin to affect him. Were he a truly good man, he knows, he would feel nothing but joy as the earth is cleansed of its pests.
- No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other’s tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature, and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes — forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There’s not a chance you’d mistake one for another, after a minute’s close inspection), but still unique.
- Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people — but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?
We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.
A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.
- It was in North Carolina, when she had seen the food for the slave children and the dogs poured into the same trough, and she had seen her little children scrabbling with the dogs for the scraps. She saw that happen one day—and she had seen it before, every day on that plantation, and she would see it again many times before she left—she saw it that one day and it broke her heart.
- Wututu and Agasu were separated then. It happened so fast—a big man forced open Agasu’s mouth, looked at his teeth, felt his arm muscles, nodded, and two other men hauled Agasu away. He did not fight them. He looked at Wututu and called, “Be brave,” to her. She nodded, and then her vision smeared and blurred with tears, and she wailed. Together they were twins, magical, powerful. Apart they were two children in pain. She never saw him again but once, and never in life.
- This is what happened to Agasu. First they took him to a seasoning farm, where they whipped him daily for the things he did and didn’t do, they taught him a smattering of English and they gave him the name of Inky Jack, for the darkness of his skin. When he ran away they hunted him down with dogs and brought him back, and cut off a toe with a chisel, to teach him a lesson he would not forget. He would have starved himself to death, but when he refused to eat his front teeth were broken and thin gruel was forced into his mouth, until he had no choice but to swallow or to choke. Even in those times they preferred slaves born into captivity to those brought over from Africa. The free-born slaves tried to run, or they tried to die, and either way, there went the profits.
- The slaves on the sugar plantations of St. Domingue rarely lived more than a decade. The free time they were given—two hours in the heat of noon and five hours in the dark of the night (from eleven until four)—was also the only time they had to grow and tend the food they would eat (for they were not fed by their masters, merely given small plots of land to cultivate, with which to feed themselves), and it was also the time they had to sleep and to dream. Even so, they would take that time and they would gather and dance, and sing and worship.
- "I'm alive" said Shadow."I'm not dead. Remember?"
"You're not dead" Laura said "But I'm not sure you're alive, either. Not really."
- Even for my kind, pain still hurts. If you move and act in the material world, then the material world acts on you. Pain hurts, just as greed intoxicates and lust burns. We may not die easy and we sure as hell don't die well, but we can die. If we're still loved and remembered, something else a whole lot like us comes along and takes our place and the whole damn thing starts all over again. And if we're forgotten, we're done.
- Mr. Wednesday
- "It's not easy to believe."
"I," she told him, "can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe."
"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen — I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone's ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we'll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind's destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it's aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there's a cat in a box somewhere who's alive and dead at the same time (although if they don't ever open the box to feed it it'll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn't even know that I'm alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn't done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what's going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman's right to choose, a baby's right to live, that while all human life is sacred there's nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it." She stopped, out of breath.
Shadow almost took his hands off the wheel to applaud. Instead he said, "Okay. So if I tell you what I've learned you won't think that I'm a nut."
"Maybe," she said. "Try me."
- Sam and Shadow (as Mike Ainsel)
- Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today? … And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn't room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is kind of likely.
- "Gods are great," said Atsula, slowly, as if she were imparting a great secret. "But the heart is greater. For it is from our hearts they come, and to our hearts they shall return..."
- "This isn’t about what is," said Mr. Nancy. "It’s about what people think is. It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things."
- "Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn’t she the one who killed her children?"
"Different woman," said Mr. Nancy. "Same deal."
- "So, you're praying? Have they got you thinking that they’re gods? They aren’t gods."
"I wasn’t praying," said Shadow. "Just thinking."
"The way I figure it," said Town, "they’re mutations. Evolutionary experiments. A little hypnotic ability, a little hocus-pocus, and they can make people believe anything. Nothing to write home about. That’s all. They die like men, after all."
"They always did," said Shadow.
- It's easy, there's a trick to it, you do it or you die.
- A voice in the back of Shadow's head.
- All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them.
- "Which path should I take?" he asked. "Which one is safe?"
"Take one, and you cannot take the other," she said. "But neither path is safe. Which way would you walk — the way of hard truths or the way of fine lies?"
"Truths," he said. "I've come too far for more lies."
- Shadow & Zorya Polunochnaya
- "All revelations are personal." she said. "That’s why all revelations are suspect."
- "You people talk about the living and the dead as if they were two mutually exclusive categories. As if you cannot have a river that is also a road, or a song that is also a color."
"You can't," said Shadow. "Can you?" The echoes whispered his words back at him from across the pool.
"What you have to remember," said Mr. Ibis, testily, "is that life and death are different sides of the same coin. Like the heads and tails of a quarter."
"And if I had a double-headed quarter?"
"You don't. They only belong to fools, and gods."
- We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness. All of the things that Shadow had done in his life of which he was not proud, all the things he wished he had done otherwise or left undone, came at him then in a swirling storm of guilt and regret and shame, and he had nowhere to hide from them. He was as naked and as open as a corpse on a table, and dark Anubis the jackal god was his prosecutor and his persecutor.
- "I want to rest now," said Shadow. "That’s what I want. I want nothing. No heaven, no hell, no anything. Just let it end."
"You're certain?" asked Thoth.
"Yes," said Shadow.
Mr. Jacquel opened the last door for Shadow, and behind that door there was nothing. Not darkness. Not even oblivion. Only nothing.
Shadow accepted it, completely and without reservation, and he walked through the door into nothing with a strange fierce joy.
- None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.
Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.
- People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
- "This is a bad land for gods," said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn't Friends, Romans, countrymen, but it would do. "You've probably all learned that. The old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing. Either you've been forgotten, or you're scared you're going to be rendered obsolete, or maybe you're just getting tired of existing on the whim of people."
- Shadow shook his head. "You know," he said, "I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do."
- One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.
The tale is the map that is the territory.
You must remember this.
- From the Notebooks of Mr. Ibis
- He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.
- Gaiman's American Gods Blog
- "only the gods are real" — a listing of all the gods and mythical beings featured in American Gods
- "Most honored fantasy book list": American Gods ranks at the top
- Internet Speculative Fiction Database - Top 100 lists: American Gods ranks second on the Balanced' and 'Popular' lists, and third on the 'Critical' list
- Review by Tom Knapp