Excerpt from American Gods by Neil Gaiman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2001, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2002, 608 pages

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Third, after he and Laura had come out of the bedroom, maybe a couple of days later, he was going to keep his head down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.

"And then you'll be happy?" asked Low Key Lyesmith. That day they were working in the prison shop, assembling bird feeders, which was barely more interesting than stamping out license plates.

"Call no man happy," said Shadow, "until he is dead."

"Herodotus," said Low Key. "Hey. You're learning."

"Who the fuck's Herodotus?" asked the Iceman, slotting together the sides of a bird feeder and passing it to Shadow, who bolted and screwed it tight.

"Dead Greek," said Shadow.

"My last girlfriend was Greek," said the Iceman. "The shit her family ate. You would not believe. Like rice wrapped in leaves. Shit like that."

The Iceman was the same size and shape as a Coke machine, with blue eyes and hair so blond it was almost white. He had beaten the crap out of some guy who had made the mistake of copping a feel off his girlfriend in the bar where she danced and the Iceman bounced. The guy's friends had called the police, who arrested the Iceman and ran a check on him which revealed that the Iceman had walked from a work-release program eighteen months earlier.

"So what was I supposed to do?" asked the Iceman, aggrieved, when he had told Shadow the whole sad tale. "I'd told him she was my girlfriend. Was I supposed to let him disrespect me like that? Was I? I mean, he had his hands all over her."

Shadow had said, "You tell 'em," and left it at that. One thing he had learned early, you do your own time in prison. You don't do anyone else's time for them.

Keep your head down. Do your own time.

Lyesmith had loaned Shadow a battered paperback copy of Herodotus's Histories several months earlier. "It's not boring. It's cool," he said, when Shadow protested that he didn't read books. "Read it first, then tell me it's cool."

Shadow had made a face, but he had started to read, and had found himself hooked against his will.

"Greeks," said the Iceman, with disgust. "And it ain't true what they say about them, neither. I tried giving it to my girlfriend in the ass, she almost clawed my eyes out."

Lyesmith was transferred one day, without warning. He left Shadow his copy of Herodotus. There was a nickel hidden in the pages. Coins were contraband: you can sharpen the edges against a stone, slice open someone's face in a fight. Shadow didn't want a weapon; Shadow just wanted something to do with his hands.

Shadow was not superstitious. He did not believe in anything he could not see. Still, he could feel disaster hovering above the prison in those final weeks, just as he had felt it in the days before the robbery. There was a hollowness in the pit of his stomach that he told himself was simply a fear of going back to the world on the outside. But he could not be sure. He was more paranoid than usual, and in prison usual is very, and is a survival skill. Shadow became more quiet, more shadowy, than ever. He found himself watching the body language of the guards, of the other inmates, searching for a clue to the bad thing that was going to happen, as he was certain that it would.

A month before he was due to be released. Shadow sat in a chilly office, facing a short man with a port-wine birthmark on his forehead. They sat across a desk from each other; the man had Shadow's file open in front of him, and was holding a ballpoint pen. The end of the pen was badly chewed.

"You cold, Shadow?"

"Yes," said Shadow. "A little."

The man shrugged. "That's the system," he said. "Furnaces don't go on until December the first. Then they go off March the first. I don't make the rules." He ran his forefinger down the sheet of paper stapled to the inside left of the folder. "You're thirty-two years old?"

From American Gods by Neil Gaiman. © 2001. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.

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