Book Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

So after this year of reading books for weeks, maybe months at a time, I finally get Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and what do I do? I devour it in a week.

It sucks because this was a book I wanted to read slowly. Getting a Gaiman book is always a treat, and I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time. I feel like I’ve sit down to a nice filet mignon dinner, smelled it in great delight, then somehow channeled Cookie Monster: plates and knives flying everywhere, going “ARRRRRRR-nyum-nyum-nyum-nyum!”, until I come out of my gluttonous haze, hair mussed, crumbs and fragments everywhere, thinking, “Wha? huh? Where’d it goooo?”

The reason why I read this book so fast was it drew me in, mainly because Gaiman always tell a good story, but this was a story using nearly an all-black cast. But it’s not blatant, with his characters talking slang and stereotypically putting their love groove on–well, okay, there’s Fat Charlie’s father, but I deal with that in a bit.. In fact, in the case of the main characters, you don’t even know they’re black until you’re well in the book. Fat Charlie, by all accounts is a proper British gentleman who just so happens to be black. I’m pretty sure his fiance is also black, mainly because her mother has been described as “a skeletal Eartha Kitt”. There’s also a point in the book when her skin is shown to be brown, but you’ll have to read the book to see which part she shows (it had me cracking up all the way off my futon).

So we have the British black, and then we have the Florida black, which mainly consists of old black women, who takes care of things after Fat Charlie’s father dies. They pretty much act, well, like old black women, and I was impressed by how Gaiman handled them without letting them slide into stereotype.

But what is this book about? It’s about stories. It’s about myths. It’s about African tales that most of us had forgotten about, which briefly made its reappearance in the Brer Rabbit tales, and then sunk back into obscurity. It’s also about the power of family and being horribly, horribly embarrassed by them, and passing on that legacy, for good or ill.

Fat Charlie, aka Charles Nancy, is a man who is puzzled all the time. He just wants to live a normal life, but he never seems to really enjoy that life. He lives it just for something to do. However, he does know he wants to stay away from his crazy father, who drinks and dances and wears goofy fedoras. It was his father, in fact, who called him “Fat Charlie”, and though Charles detests the name, whenever someone finds out about it, it always sticks.

When his father dies in a spectacular use of karaoke and a crooked finger, Charles suddenly learns he has a brother named Spider, who is the exact opposite of Charles: he’s smooth, he’s eloquent, he’s debonair. Things happen around him. And it appears that he’s the one who inherited most of their father’s powers. For their father was Anansi, the trickster spider-god.

I understand that this book is a companion to American Gods, which I have not read yet, but this one has more humor. That’s certainly the case. There’s a lot of wit and fun, starting with Spider deciding to have fun with Charles’s life, to Charles discovering  his own self. There’s birds and ghosts, and that annoying boss whom you can hear the insincerity in his catchphrase, “Absatively!” There’s also stories about Anansi, which may or may not be true (one story had me scratching my head, thinking, I could’ve sworn I read that once as a Grimm’s fairy tale…)

The only time I got pulled out of the story was when Charles Nancy landed in jail. Being a black person, if such a thing happened to me, I would have been deeply worried on how it would reflect on me as a black person overall. After all, the statistics are significantly higher for black people to go to jail more than white people (I remember my hubby once showing me that the ratio of black men in Wisconsin sent to prison over white people was 17 to 1). However, there was an absence of that worry in Charles Nancy. Part of me wondered if it had to do with it being that Charles was completely overwhelmed by everything that was happening to him (losing his job, his fiancee, not to mention his closet space turned into a bedroom set in a completely different part of the world). But another part of me wondered if this was because, Gaiman, being caucasian (though a British one at that), didn’t have the experience to consider it. Or maybe he did and chose not to make an issue of it, choosing to keep the book light in nature. Which makes sense. I suppose I’ll have to ask him that the next time he’s in Madison. 

This gets 4-3/4 spiders out of 5 (yes, that’s my rating. What of it?). This is one of those books makes me wish I was a famous writer so I could write it myself. Maybe one day, when Hollywood realizes that the world is more multi-cultural than they think, Anansi Boys will get made into a movie. I have hope. Hey, if we can get a black president into the White House, then certainly we can get an all-black cast fantasy movie. It’s just a matter of time, that’s all.

Oh, and by the way, Neil, I am absolutely serious. The next time you’re in Madison, WI, let me know. I’m dying to buy you a cup of coffee so I can pick your brains out about Anansi Boys and writing in general. Well, not necessarily pick your brains in that way…

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