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Household Gods

  Anansi Boys
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow, 2005
Rating: 3.4

Posted: October 12, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

As a novelist, Neil Gaiman is as frustrating and elusive as Anansi, the West African trickster god who gives Gaiman's latest book, Anansi Boys, its title. And for that reason, it's tempting to draw a comparison between Gaiman, a proficient storyteller, and Anansi, who's credited as the source, or at least the shaper, of all stories. But it's closer to the mark to compare Gaiman to his titular characters, protagonist Fat Charlie Nancy and his brother, Spider -- both of whom, in their own way, don't quite live up the magical potential inherent in their bloodlines.

Fat Charlie is a somewhat dull, put-upon (but not fat) sort, cast in the mold of, say, Douglas Adams' Arthur Dent (more on Adams in a bit). Upon attending his father's funeral, Fat Charlie is told that his father was, in fact, Anansi, and that he has a long-lost brother he doesn't remember. Sure enough, Fat Charlie reaches out to Spider, who promptly shows up and proves to be everything Fat Charlie isn't: handsome, mysterious, carefree, confident, cool and, on top of all that, magical. Spider can manipulate reality to suit his fancy, and cloud peoples' minds.

(In fact, it's difficult not to picture him as Gaiman himself, leather jacket and all -- except for the fact that all of the book's major players are black. That fact isn't particularly relevant to this review except for the fact that Gaiman never explicitly tells us this, leaving us to figure it out on our own. It's a laudable enough attempt to challenge our preconceptions -- why should we always automatically assume that a character is white until told otherwise? -- but it nonetheless feels like self-impressed sleight-of-hand. When the reader does come to this realization -- and if one is paying close attention, it doesn't take too long -- he or she is distracted from the story by Gaiman's cleverness, and by their own in figuring it out.)

Naturally (in whatever form that term applies when relating a story involving ancient gods), Spider begins to complicate Fat Charlie's life a great deal, first by getting him in trouble with a thieving, unscrupulous boss, and second by proceeding to steal Fat Charlie's sweet-natured fiancée, Rosie. Soon enough, Fat Charlie is on his way back to his childhood home in Florida, where he prevails upon a coven of elderly neighbor ladies to help him get rid of his brother.

If the conflict between Fat Charlie and Spider sounds like the set-up for a perfectly serviceable British sitcom (has "Oh, Brother" been taken?), Gaiman quickly spins Anansi Boys further out than that, involving the squabbling siblings in a plot involving Graham Coates, Fat Charlie's scheming employer, who has Fat Charlie framed for embezzling, and an ancient enemy of their father's, who wishes the brothers no good. Eventually, everything comes to a head as a large cast of characters -- the brothers, Rosie, her mother, Coates, a pixie-ish police detective named Daisy, and a ghost -- play out their parts on the Caribbean island of Saint Andrews. And Gaiman nicely gives both brothers' stories an identifiable arc; each changes in a meaningful way, and they learn something both remarkable and (once one thinks about it) fairly obvious about their relationship to one another.

As agreeable a page-turner as Anansi Boys is, one wishes that Gaiman had chosen a more epic scope befitting his subject matter. But Gaiman, perhaps (wisely) sensing that that way lies grand-scale melodrama, instead adapts a genteel tone, tinged with the droll, perpetually adolescent wit of a Douglas Adams (several joke-y passages here sound inspired by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) or Dave Barry. Much more than the quote-unquote "fantasy" milieu, this light touch is an invitation to marginalization.

Anansi Boys may follow Gaiman's previous "adult" novel, American Gods (in which Anansi also appeared) up the charts, but it doesn't ask to be taken seriously. No one expects Gaiman to ever equal the majesty, complexity and sheer inventiveness of the zeitgeist-capturing Sandman comic series for which he's still best-known; that series captured lightning in a bottle, and he's wise not to attempt to recapture it. In fact, tonally, Anansi Boys is very much in keeping with the rest of Gaiman's body of work, which has made no attempt at storytelling on as grand a scale.

That's all well and good -- these are Gaiman's stories, and he's free to tell them any way he pleases. But one finishes Anansi Boys wishing that it carried a bit more heft, for all the supernatural raw material at his disposal.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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