Anansi Boys by Neil Caiman

Last week I mentioned that I had finally gotten around to reading American Gods in preparation for Neil Gaiman’s latest work Anansi Boys. Well, I finally got around to reading Anansi Boys.

The trickster god Anansi played a small role in American Gods but, as the title indicates, this book focuses on his sons. The focal point is Fat Charlie, a rather unassuming young man living in London. Fat Charlie isn’t really fat, that was just the nickname his father annoying and embarrassing father gave him during the one or two months in his whole life he was chubby.

This encapsulates Charlie’s relationship with his father and his attitude toward life. Charlie is forever being embarrassed and rather annoyed by the way his father and life seems to treat him. He never seems to be able to do anything about it, but it bugs him just the same. Charlie moved to London to try and put some distance between him and his past, but when his wife insists on inviting his father to the wedding, Charlie is pulled back in.

Calling to get an address, Charlie finds out that his father has died. He returns to Florida only to miss the funeral. He ends up dealing with the odd women from his old neighborhood. These women tell Charlie that his dad was/is a god and that he has a brother who, oddly enough, he can communicate to via the common spider. In a fit of bad luck or drunkenness or both, Charlie decides to test this absurd theory out by communicating with a spider trapped in his bathroom. Just before he releases it into the night, he asks the spider to invite his brother to stop by sometime.

When his brother, the aptly named Spider, does just that things start to really spin out of control. Soon Charlie has lost his girlfriend, his job, and quite possibly his freedom. He is being framed for crime he didn’t commit, negotiating with strange mythical creatures in a dimension not our own, and chased by giant flocks of birds. Things get so bad Charlie must turn to his dad for help.

Like most Gaiman works, Anansi Boys is a convoluted mixture of fantasy, mystery, farce, and romance. There are moments of wry humor, laugh out loud silliness, and tender reminders of just how maddening one’s family can be.

I thought American Gods was a little long in parts and lost focus easily. Anansi Boys avoids this to a much greater degree. The story line is tighter and the main characters are easier to relate to and understand. The conventions of farce and the mystery like plot structure help keep things focused.

Sure, Gaiman can’t help but go off on tangents about mythology and the central role of storytelling in both history and our daily lives. But for the most part these distractions are not fatal to the overall success of the main story.

I think Charles Taylor’s New York Times Review is a little harsh when he describes the books as being

like one of those restaurants with a vast and varied menu, with none of the dishes prepared very well. It’s the work of a talented writer who didn’t know when to quit.

I agree with Taylor that Gaiman could have written a much more powerful work if he had stuck to the English farce and left out a great deal of the mythology and folklore. The collision between Fat Charlie’s order if slightly pathetic world and the chaos of his brother spider is truly worthy of Waugh or Wodehouse. And the mythology distracts from this a bit. But is also clear that Gaiman enjoys weaving in the mythology and folklore and his die-hard fans don’t seem to mind. Perhaps Taylor has expectations that Gaiman and his fans don’t share. For myself, just because I don’t like every single course doesn’t mean I can’t savor the meal (okay, end of metaphor).

What everyone can agree on is that Gaiman has talent. Whatever your position on the mythology issue, Anansi Boys is a funny, captivating, and entertaining romp. The writing is witty and deft. The characters are engaging and well drawn and the plot has good pace. Plus, Gaiman, like Anansi, always has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Gaiman fans, fans of English humor, or those who just like fun lighthearted reads will want to pick up Anansi Boys. It is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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