Book Review: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. Harper Torch Fiction Publishing. 2005. $8.

I’m not sure Neil needs his books reviewed, actually. His books are enjoyable fiction. If you like Douglas Adams, you might enjoy Anansi Boys. British humor is hilarious; their gift for understatement tickles me. Douglas Adams was the godfather of understatements and eloquently contrived mundane situations which spiral out-of-control at the speed of light. Terry Pratchett shared the same gift, using irony, sarcasm, understatement, and imagination to create his elaborate Discworld. One of my favorite authors, Piers Anthony, has two dozen Xanth novels. If you haven’t read any Xanth novels and enjoy puns, riddles, word-play, irony, and magic, you should definitely invest in reading some Xanth fiction.

Gods live among us. Sure, they do. All of the old gods, the gods of the Native Americans, of the Celts, of the Norse. They are right there in front of you in line at Walmart, filling up their gas tank at Marathon, eating a Thickburger at Hardee’s. Maybe. Depends on their whim. These old gods don’t sit in General Admission at the Cardinal’s game, or maybe they do, just to see how people live and to drink a cold beer. That old guy, sitting at the bar in the townie dive, the one who does karaoke and sings to the pretty college girls, he is a god, too.

And, gods die. One minute, they are belting out the Righteous Brothers, “Soul and Inspiration,” to a captivated audience; the next moment, he’s crashed out on the floor, dead as a Lincoln.

Gods have children, too. In this case, two sons. Charley “Fat” Nancy thinks he is an only child until his dad is buried. A few Anansi’s lady friends lets Charley in on a well-kept secret, he has a brother. Oh, and your father was a god. so, I guess two well-kept secrets. Right, Charley says. My father was a god. So, why is he dead? I thought gods were immortal. And, if I have a brother, why wasn’t he at the funeral? And, if you know so much, then how do I get in touch with him? I guess he should know our father is dead.

The ladies, friends of Anansi, are witches, I gather, or their modern equivalent. They are a little clairvoyant, and are mostly startled by their own prowess at creating visions. One of the ladies suggests to Charley he might simply ask the next spider he runs across to get word to his brother. After all, his name is, “Spider.”

Spider, the brother – and the arachnid, for the that matter – shows up and wastes no time in meddling and mischief-making. Charley quickly loses his fiance, gets furloughed from his job, and implicated in a potentially murder and embezzling scheme. To say Charley has little enthusiasm for his brother’s cavalier attitude about life is a little like saying breathing on the Moon is quite the chore if one is not suitable attired in a nice space suit.

Neil’s writing is quick and sharp, with necessary detours to enrich the storytelling. Sometimes, the story takes the reader one block over, so to speak. You know how when you are out with friends and they “want to take you by the place and show you something nifty?” Neil’s storytelling is a bit like that. We’re just going to dodge in here for a nip of bitters and some fine words, and then we’ll be back on our way, just as you please. And, then after a little side trip, we are back on the route to see the Bird Lady, or the Tiger, or the End of the World.

The quaintness of being a god, or even the offspring of a god, is not lacking for things. The wallet has necessary cash, even the vilest of people are compliant, and one could be vacationing on the beach near Miami one moment, then decide to take in the London Eye the next moment. Charley finds himself jetting back and forth across the Atlantic courtesy of both mundane airlines and his brother. “Maybe you should just close your eyes,” Spider recommends on their first trans-Atlantic journey. They don’t end up in Miami on this trip, though.

A very complex scheme involving Charley’s former fiance, his employer, a ghost, the ghost’s dead husband, the Bird Lady, the Tiger, and of course, Spider, results a trip to the Caribbean. The island of Saint Andrew, to be precise. I’m not sure this is a real place. To be clear, an island going by the name of “Saint Andres” does exist, though the geographic details provided in Anansi Boys don’t seem congruent with the geography of the island I found.

The named island is found several miles off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, part of the infamous “Mosquito Coast.” The island is tiny, a World Heritage site, without the named towns of Williamstown or Newcastle. The island’s location places it a good deal south of most of the cruise ship routes.Each time I run across fictional geography on this planet I wonder why. Some authors have no quandary regarding the use of real places, and use real toponyms even for simple crossroads with impunity. Other authors simply make shit up. They stick towns where none literally exist, fabricate Army bases, create fictional national forests, and have their characters travel roads with no analog in the real world. And then there are those authors who appear to use real geographical places yet create their own place names and supporting histories. Being a professional geography, armchair historian, and pro-am writer, I’m left befuddled by these odd geographical machinations.

Figuring out where portions of stories occur sometimes feels like being a detective about a detective novel. Anansi boys is not really a caper or detective novel, more about two brothers getting back in touch after years apart and recovering lost love. My best guess is the isles of St Kitts and Nevis, and especially Nevis, is the true locale of the story. Nevis is a tourist destination, has a town called, “Newcastle,” on the north and a town called, “Charlestown,” on the south. “Williamstown” is an easy leap to make, especially for a British author with a couple of centuries of royalty to draw names from, and whose former empire included St. Kitts and Nevis. Nevis is a hub for off-shore banking, was a port supporting the historical slave trade, and had an extensive plantation system. These details are provided to us because Charley has little to do while in flight to the island and reads some history and geography pertaining to the island from the guidebook found in his seat-back pocket, courtesy of Caribbeair airlines.

And, the island of note cannot be Barbados because the captive couple is scheduled to have a BBQ their later. Yes, there is some taking of prisoners. And, some spiders, but these are nice friendly spiders much like Lassie, who goes for help each time Timmy falls in the damn well, again.

It’s Neil Gaiman, for crying out loud. If Neil wrote “flibbertygibbet” on toilet paper people would stand in line to buy it, I’m fairly certain. Which is sad, in a sense, because how would you know if your work was falling off? How would you know how to measure your own quality if your ascendance to god-like author status is complete and your works immediately rise to “New York Times Bestseller” status within moments of being made available?

But, it’s not like Neil hasn’t had to work for his recognition. He is well-known for his Sandman comics, for his Doctor Who contributions, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and his books for children. He delivers quality, thoughtful and creative prose. American Gods was a good novel, as is Anansi Boys.

You should read them if you haven’t. PAX.

 

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