American Gods

Death Bird Spotting

In an earlier post I had mentioned Neil Gaiman’s presence at a conference I had attended, where he was putting in time signing books (at that moment his young adult fantasy The Graveyard Book). I first encountered Gaiman’s work when I selected for a local book club I was running at the Mitchell branch of the New Haven Public Library. It was, and still is, his best novel, even though I have enjoyed some of his other ventures (particularly his early novel Neverwhere). But American Gods differed from the rest by virtue of its bold topic, drawing on ideas first broached in his Sandman series. In brief, American Gods is an adventure yarn and con game of, quite literally, mythological proportions, as well as a meditation on the Voltairean dictum “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." And, yet, as thematically bold as the novel is, its topic is not by any means original. As literary renderings of this philosophical conundrum go, it stands on the shoulders of giants. I note this because the clash it depicted between the older gods of ethnic legend—from the Norse Odin to Africa’s Ananzi—and the modern deities of the Almighty Dollar and All-Consuming Computer, came back to me with renewed vigor after re-reading Harlan Ellison’s remarkable Deathbird Stories.

Devoted to the gods of modern urban life, each tale in Ellison's story cycle was an experiment in writing and consequently a literary effort to knock the stiffness out of science fiction itself. Bound too long by the traditions of pure pulp and space opera, American science fiction found in Ellison the American answer to the New Wave of British SF flowing from the pens of Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, and John Brunner. His editorship of Dangerous Visions broke new ground by giving a distinctively literary turn to this much put-upon genre. His follow-up eight years later in The Deathbird Stories did no less.

Like American Gods, Deathbird Stories is a full-frontal assault on our many species of worship and obsession—the distance between the two never that great to begin with. Each tale is an act of literary transgression blessed by modernist rage. They experiment with time, place, voice, language, symbol, pattern, and even when they fail, the failure strikes us as epic as short stories go.

Yet amid the dark brilliance seams have begun to show, breaks that have grown more prominent with the passing of years, a matter that becomes ever more interesting for me in my study of the reading experience over time. When I first read the Deathbird Stories, I was “blown away,” which, notwithstanding the overblown-ness of that hackneyed, was quite apropos then. My experience was in keeping with Ellison’s tongue in/not-in cheek warning:

CAVEAT LECTOR It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole. H.E.

Now as I read these tales, despite the vibrancy, their 1970s-ness shines through, dampening that potential to upset. The unhappiness of this decade in America—white flight, urban crime, oil embargoes, cocaine trafficking, Christmas bombings, failed presidencies—is deeply felt throughout. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is a literary reworking of the Kitty Genovese tragedy (immortalized as well in the first verse of Phil Ochs’ “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”). “Neon” is an ode in prose—quite literally—to that flashing light that infuriatingly blinks outside our windows at night but which we love to no end on darkened streets when thinning crowds deprive us of that nocturnal protection in numbers. “Basilisk” places the horrors of war on a collision course with the hypocritical inanities of American chest-thumping patriotism (a story that weirdly resonates in today's climate with current debates on torture and its consequences). And on it goes, with dark-tinted paeans to drugs and free love, the automobile, business and religion.

Among my favorites is “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” an encomium to the selfishness and loserdom that typify gamblers on the downhill side. I especially enjoyed Ellison’s mind-bending depiction of Maggie’s dissolution into a slot machine:

A moment out of time | lights whirling and spinning in a cotton candy universe | down a bottomless funnel roundly sectioned like a goat’s horn | a cornucopia that rose up cuculiform smooth and slick as a worm belly | endless nights that pealed ebony funeral bells | out of fog | out of weightlessness | suddenly total cellular knowledge | memory running backward…

The classic of the collection, however, remains “Along the Scenic Route,” which upon rereading holds up surprisingly well only because it is one of the few stories that does not situate itself within the 1970s. Where most of the tales read like magic realism gone awry, this literary gem is a true work of “science fiction.” It is also his least experimental: the telling is straight, the weirdness stripped away. But there is an O Henry-like twist ending that will forever make this story a dark pleasure, which is my superfluously literary way of saying that I had as much fun reading it this time as when I first encountered it.

As life experiences go, I was never one for bird watching, preferring to run my eyes across bookshelves than search the branches of unidentifiable trees in strange parks. So let's just say this time I was glad to spot this rara avis once more and, taking it down from its perch, worship at its altar. For before there were American Gods, there were The Deathbird Stories.