“Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman

A hybrid of folklore and farce, the latest from the author of "American Gods" unfurls the story of Fat Charlie, a pitiful working bloke who's the son of a trickster god.

Topics: Fiction, Neil Gaiman, Books,

"Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, “American Gods,” had an ingenious premise: It’s set among the washed-up deities of a motley assortment of defunct pantheons, all of whom have been abandoned by their former worshippers on the shores of the New World. Mesopotamian fertility goddesses resort to turning tricks, and the Egyptian gods of the underworld have to hang out their shingle as embalmers. The conclusions the novel reaches about the mythic roots of America don’t quite convince — perhaps because Gaiman is a British expat — but the noir road trip that gets you there is a blast all the same.

“Anansi Boys,” Gaiman’s latest foray into the same fictional milieu, is a more modest and also a more fully realized book. That’s because it takes full advantage of the author’s great gift: his ability to blend the archetypal elements of myth and folklore with the grit and comedy of everyday life. His characters never stop wrangling with real-world problems — infuriating relatives, crappy jobs, rickety love lives — even when they stumble into some very strange and cosmic situations. The poor slob this time around is one Charles Anansi, a sweet but easily mortified nebbish trying to eke out a humble existence as an administrative worker in London. He’s been saddled with the (unfitting) nickname of Fat Charlie by his charming rascal of a father, a supporting character in “American Gods” and — unbeknownst to Fat Charlie — also the West African and Caribbean trickster god Anansi.

In the course of the novel, Fat Charlie will learn that he has a much cooler brother, Spider, who has inherited all of Mr. Anansi’s powers and prankish habits. When their father keels over dead in a karaoke bar, Spider descends upon his brother’s tidy life and becomes the houseguest from hell, moving in on Fat Charlie’s fiancée and stirring up trouble at work. Fat Charlie enlists the help of some aged ladies in the family’s former stomping grounds in Florida, and winds up invoking menacing, unpredictable entities who soon turn out to be even more destructive than Spider.



“Anansi Boys” is a hybrid of folk tale and farce that freely partakes of the comic wealth in each, slipping effortlessly back and forth between them. One particularly vivid scene has Fat Charlie (courtesy of the old ladies’ magic) walking along the mountains at the end of the world (or the beginning of it, depending on which direction you’re coming from), where he visits a series of caves inhabited by archetypal animal-people: Lion, Monkey, Elephant and, his father’s nemesis, Tiger. “These mountains and their caves are made from the stuff of the oldest stories,” Gaiman writes, and he conjures a primal, rocky landscape that does justice to the claim.

Sprinkled throughout are some of the traditional Anansi tales (Zora Neale Hurston, who collected such folklore, is one of the people thanked in the dedication), balanced by a contemporary crime story concerning Fat Charlie’s larcenous boss. The boss is an avatar of Tiger, who embodies the truly predatory as opposed to Anansi’s naughtiness. “The meaning of life,” Tiger explains to Fat Charlie outside his cave, “is the hot blood of your prey on your tongue … It’s a big serious world out there; nothing to laugh about. Not ever. You must teach children to fear, teach them to tremble. Teach them to be cruel.” Mulling this over, Fat Charlie decides that what troubles him most is “not that Tiger was mad; it was that he was so earnest in his convictions, and that all of his convictions were uniformly unpleasant.”

Anansi, by contrast, is the spirit of play, of jokes and songs and of course of stories. “Anansi Boys” is Gaiman’s tribute to that trickster spirit, as nimble and resourceful as his own imagination.

Our next pick: Philip K. Dick meets Hemingway, Chandler and Carver

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>