Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys -- Playaway Audio Edition (Harper Audio/Playback, 2005)
The say that a long time ago a spider stole all of the stories from a tiger. Maybe it's just that the spider told them better. Who doesn't like a tale well told? But you can't go around as a spider forever, sometimes you've gotta mix things up. Keeps things interesting. Just ask Mr. Nancy, he'd tell you. This sporty fellow from American Gods makes his way closer to the limelight here in Anansi Boys.
This time Mr. Nancy throws off what little disguise he had in American Gods and appears as Anansi, full-fledged trickster god, flashy lemon-yellow gloves and all. But as entertaining as he is, he's not the main character of this story. As the title tells you, this Anansi tale is about his children, Charlie Nancy and his long-lost twin brother, Spider. The cause of the separation is a bit muddy in the beginning, but don't worry; why they became separated and how they are re-introduced is the focus of this tale.
Charlie, or Fat Charlie, as the world knows him -- he isn't fat, but his father's teasing nickname has stuck to him like glue -- lives a bland, routine existence in London. He's got a job, a flat and a fiancee, but everything in his life is pretty much colorless and routine. As he's trying to figure out how to avoid inviting his overly colorful and downright embarrassing dad to his upcoming wedding, Fat Charlie finds that the problem has solved itself as Mr. Nancy died a few days earlier at a karaoke bar in Florida. So Fat Charlie heads to Florida to attend the funeral, and finds out about his long-lost brother. But all is not happy reunion and hugs all around, as Fat Charlie soon discovers that Spider has inherited his father's godliness. Which is hard to live with, especially if that god-like brother of yours keeps siphoning all the hot water from the flat into his personal hot tub. Not to mention making serious time with your fiancee. Charlie decides that he's had enough, but how do you get rid of a god when you can't even manage to stand up to your fiancee's mother?
I've read American Gods and Neverwhere, and enjoyed them both. Gaiman's collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, is one of my favorite books in any genre. But after reading each author's individual works, I figured Neil Gaiman as the "straight man" on Good Omens, relying on Terry Pratchett for the humorous bits. In Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman proves that he's got what it takes to spin a comedic tale and still keep it as engrossing as his prior work. His ability to write descriptive passages so clearly that you can easily visualize them in your own head makes the humor in this book really stand out. Fat Charlie's belief that his fiancee's mother would probably terrify church parisioners should she ever attend church is especially hilarious. In fact, just about any time you get a peek inside one of the character's heads to find out what he or she is thinking is usually comic. It's not all humor though, because there are hurdles Fat Charlie and Spider must overcome, and not all of them are pleasant. Foul play is afoot, and so are little old ladies who know a little too much about the old ways. There are mysteries to be solved and gods to be dealt with.
Which brings me to something I've always enjoyed in Gaiman's work, his ability to breathe life into the gods. In this book, the animal gods of the West Indies are represented, and so are their tales. Monkey, Bird and Tiger are introduced, as well as several others. There's even a duppie (ghost) or two, as a murderous plot leaves behind a spirit not so eager to cross over. Some of the supernatural support staff have more interaction with our main characters than others, but they all have a commanding presence that left me wanting more.
The book's themes -- accepting who you are, finding your own way in the world, and the strong pull of familial ties -- are easily spotted. They're pretty standard stuff. However, Gaiman doesn't bore, he entertains, and I felt myself nodding in agreement; who hasn't had a time when family members just didn't seem to be anything close to who you are? When the idea of being related to your parents causes embarrassment rather than joy? I still have visions of my father in a pair of red, white and blue plaid pants (paired, naturally, with a green blazer) that give me the willies. These concepts bring an immediacy to this tale of gods and magic, making it accessible to readers outside of typical genre boundaries.
You may wonder why GMR is revisiting this tale. Wasn't Anansi Boys already reviewed? Indeed it was, and well done, too. But sometimes we get something new and interesting here in the offices, and that lends itself to another look. The version of Anansi Boys I got my hands on wasn't your typical hardback novel. The publishing house came up with a Playaway version, a sort of MP3 player pre-loaded with an unabridged audio version of a book. It's fantastically portable, and slips into a pocket or purse easily, going just about anywhere you'd take an audiobook. I had two problems with this device though; first, walking around with it hanging from the complimentary laniard caused it to bounce up and down, and after a while it would shut itself off. Second, the volume controls only go forward, from one to ten. So if you want to turn it down, you've got to crank it all the way up, then go back to the barely audible one, and start over again. Once I found a comfortable listening level and had it firmly lodged in my jacket pocket, it was a nice way to visit this tale. The icing on the cake was their selection of Lenny Henry as narrator. I've been a huge fan of his ever since I stumbled on an episode of Chef many years back. As a narrator he can't be beat. He keeps things lively, enunciates well and has a long list of character voices at his command. The ten hours of audio sailed by, thanks to Gaiman's and Henry's storytelling skills.
The ending of this tale is a happy one, and ties things up nicely. Of course, there are one or two slightly dangling strings that could be coaxed out, but are just fine where they are. If they decide to unravel into their own story however, I wouldn't be the slightest bit upset about it. "Mr. Nancy" and his family would be bound to spin another funny, engrossing tale.