Hate to say it, but ever since Neil Gaiman ended The Sandman and left the comics industry to become a quote-unquote real writer, I've been fairly disappointed in his output. His multi-award-winning American Gods was a dazzling mess, and his equally lauded Coraline was, I felt, a needlessly compromised attempt at a grim fairy tale. (The movie was actually better.) It seemed Gaiman was propelling himself to the top of the "most overrated" list, delivering heavily hyped event novels which sounded the Pavlovian bell of style-over-substance for an eager fanboy throng.
Anansi Boys is a turn for the better. Still rooted in Gaiman's enduring fascination with gods and myths, the book shows the most whimsical side of Gaiman we've seen since Good Omens. And yet, except for one or two passages that are clearly in homage, he avoids obvious allusions to his collaborator on that book, that force of comic nature better known as Terry Pratchett. Gaiman's acknowledgements page acknowledges Wodehouse, among others, and there is much more of that great humorist's influence in evidence than I've seen from Gaiman before. And unlike American Gods, there is a far more focused and consistently satisfying story here. Ultimately, Anansi Boys may be just a trifle. Reading it often feels like you're eating a rich dessert made up entirely of meringue, whipped cream, and marshmallows. Delicious going down, but not exactly something that leaves you feeling nourished or even particularly well-fed. But come on — you don't eat desserts like that for the nutrients, you eat them for the yummy calories!
Perhaps Gaiman's maturation as a novelist (not to mention his development as a humorist) has had something to do with the fact he's been pacing himself. It's been four years since American Gods, after all, during which time Gaiman has teamed up with longtime Sandman collaborator Dave McKean for some striking children's books and the fantasy film Mirrormask. Having stretched himself into other fields thus, Gaiman's novel-writing has avoided the creative stagnation that could have crept in had he promptly and greedily responded to Gods' rampant success with some instant shake-'n-bake sequels.
Anansi Boys follows the life of Charles Nancy, a breed of protagonist quite common to British comedy (Wodehouse in particular). He's the nebbish who simply wants to live a normal life, yet cannot seem to do anything right, or at the very least, anything that doesn't put him in a humiliating situation. Yet all of his problems aren't entirely his own doing. He's been anointed with the nickname Fat Charlie, by a flamboyant father whose penchant for pure whimsy has always been a source of acute embarrassment. And his shame at his father's antics has colored not only his relationships and perceptions of the world, but his self-image as well. His job, working as a financial advisor for a supercilious boss with a bad habit of speaking entirely in clichéd catchphrases and embezzling from his wealthy clients, and his fianceé, a traditional young woman who frustrates him by holding out on sex until marriage, don't do much to enhance his happiness.
But upon his father's death, he learns a few startling secrets. For one thing, his father, it appears, was no man, but the trickster god Anansi (who also appeared in American Gods). Furthermore, Charlie has a brother he's previously known nothing about. An enigmatic fellow calling himself Spider, he begins to intrude upon Charlie's life, even moving into his flat. At first this seems like an attempt at creating a real fraternal bond by an estranged brother. But soon, Spider is taking more after their late (?) father than Charlie. A wild success at every social and personal achievement that has eluded Charlie, Spider is before long courting (with equal success) Charlie's fianceé. Enough is enough. And when Charlie turns to some of his father's old acquaintances for help in getting his brother out of his life — some crotchety old ladies intended as a parody of Macbeth's witches — he learns a thing or two about who he, his brother, and his father really are. Charlie follows the women's advice, but soon regrets it. But is it too late to undo what he's done?
Whereas American Gods examined the role of myths in culture, here, gods and goddesses and spirits are more of a backdrop to the main story of Charlie's personal journey from wimp to man of action. (The title Anansi Boys is also a pun upon Charlie's last name and the insult "nancy boy," a class of wimp to whose ranks Charlie certainly belongs at the story's opening.) Throughout, the pacing is quite brisk — even average readers won't have a problem polishing this off in a couple of evenings — and the wit sharp, with a smattering of laugh-out-loud bits (my favorite involves stuffing a turkey) worthy of Wodehouse, Pratchett, and Adams. So involved is Gaiman with the light-hearted spirit in which he's telling the story that he's all too happy to let lackadaisical plot gaffes slide. As the book moves toward its climax, Gaiman tosses off some wildly improbable contrivances in order to get all of his principals together in the same location for the dual showdown, resolving both the main plot thread of Charlie's finally connecting with Spider and a subplot about Charlie's crooked boss.
But as the book finally gets us where we wanted to end up, who cares? It's an entertainment, a trifle, a charming tall tale to put a smile on your face on a rainy day. No, it's not the four-course dinner you might get from truly top-flight humorists like Wodehouse and Pratchett. But you know what they say. Life is short. Eat dessert first.