(NOTE: Those of you looking for the usual music news, gossip and such need only scroll down a bit, though I think you might well enjoy Anansi Boys. Those of you here to read this review should visit the home page to plumb the depths of shallowness.)
I confess that Anansi Boys is the first Neil Gaiman book I have read. I use the word "confess" for two reasons. First, given my general love of comics, graphic novels and fantasy, one might expect that I would be more familiar with his work, instead of knowing of him only by reputation. Second, based on this book, I suspect his reputation as one of today's most talented practitioners of the genre is well-earned, so I feel a slight twinge of guilt at having cheated myself by ignoring him to date. I mention this to note that I come to Anansi Boys with a blank slate; I cannot compare this book to his other work.
Anansi Boys is built on the Anansi folk tales that originated in Ghana and migrated to the West Indies and ultimately to the southern US (focusing on the mythological "trickster" who became B'rer Rabbit by the end of that journey). Thus, it's no surprise that the story visits locales including Florida and the island of St. Andrews. Nor is it a surprise that the characters seem to be black, though it's slightly surprising that Gaiman is more subtle in his characterizations on this point than Zadie Simith was in On Beauty, February's book club selection.
Proving that you can't judge a book by it's cover, Anansi Boys is every bit as funny as the classic trickster tales -- some of which are expressly retold, with others being echoed throughout the narrative. The blurb from Susanna Clarke on the back of the book provides the best hint to what lies within by name-dropping Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And though that might be the most apt fantasy reference, I would venture that the style of the book is often Pythonesque (or prehaps Gilliamesque, a la Time Bandits)
For example, here's Gaiman describing protagonist Fat Charlie (who is not fat) going to visit four old women:
"IT WAS SORT of like Macbeth, thought Fat Charlie, an hour later; in fact, if the witches in Macbeth had been four little old ladies and if, instead of stirring cauldrons and intoning dread incantations, they had just welcomed Macbeth in and fed him turkey and peas spread out on white china plates on a red-and-white patterned plastic tablecloth -- not to mention sweet potato pudding and spicy cabbage -- and encouraged him to take second helpings, and thirds, and them, when Macbeth had declaimed that nay, he was stuffed nigh unto bursting and on his oath could truly eat no more, the witches had pressed upon him their own special island rice pudding and a large slice of Mrs. Bustamonte's famous pineapple upside-down cake, it would have been exactly like Macbeth."
Later, when Fat Charlie's brother, Spider, is decribed as having more fun than a barrelful of monkeys, Gaiman adds a footnote:
"Several years earlier Spider had actually been tremendously disappointed by a barrelful of monkeys. It had done nothing he had considered particularly entertaining, apart from emit interesting noises, and eventually, once the noises had stopped and the monkeys were no longer doing anything at all -- except possibly on an organic level -- had needed to be disposed of in the dead of night."
Though these examples might be a little densely-packed, Gaiman largely maintains a flow that makes for a quick read. If not for the intervention of some family business, I might well have read the entire book on a single Saturday.
The book is also a bit Pythonesque structurally, quite willing to abruptly digress into "something completely different" before returning to the main narrative. This might bother some readers. It bothered me only a little, near the end. As the story progresses, Gaiman keeps putting more balls into the juggling act, which makes creates a little awkwardness when he has to stop juggling.
That is, however, a rather small criticism of a book I enjoyed thoroughly. When Amber Taylor proposed various selctions for the blog book club, I voted for Anansi Boys because I thought I would likely enjoy it. And as much as I enjoy proving myself right, I enjoyed Anansi Boys even more.UPDATE: The Book Club is discussing it over at Amber's blog.