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ATLANTA -- If you Google the name Neil, the most popular links are not Armstrong or Young, Simon or Diamond. Most popular is Neil Gaiman, a British fantasy and sci-fi author who has a following of sufficient size that it easily surpasses cult, although it falls short of household name-dom.
With his shaggy, Byronic good looks, black leather jackets and shades, Gaiman is almost a semi-mythic figure to his fans, even if his nonstop blogging presents him as a very regular guy. So it's appropriate that his latest novel - which may break through to some of those unaware households - is about mythic figures and regular guys, and how sometimes it's hard to tell which is which.
His last big book, the Hugo Award-winning "American Gods" (2001), was a fantasy epic with an intriguing idea: What if the old "small g" gods - Norse, Native American, African - lived in contemporary America, but with diminished powers in a culture that worships the gods of DSL, SUV and TiVo above all else? Its imagination was impressive, but at times you could hear Gaiman (who's still best known for his "Sandman" series of graphic novels) huffing and puffing, trying to bring forth Stephen King's "The Stand."
"Anansi Boys" takes "a sliver of DNA," in Gaiman's words, from "American Gods" to produce a very different (and in many ways more enjoyable) novel, a welterweight boxer of a book - light on its feet, but capable of delivering a punch. "God is dead. Meet the kids" is the novel's irreverent marketing slogan. The book is dedicated to, among others, Tex Avery, creator of the wackiest Bugs Bunny cartoons, and P.G. Wodehouse, creator of light British whimsy. Combine those two incompatible forces and you're in the off-kilter world of "Anansi Boys."
In the old legends, Anansi is an African trickster god who usually takes the form of a spider. He's cunning, lustful and life-affirming, all characteristics of the man named Spider who shows up at Charlie Nancy's London flat claiming to be his long-lost brother. Charlie Nancy, whom everyone calls "Fat Charlie" even though he hasn't been fat for years, is a human kick-me sign, a sad schlub with a soul-killing accounting job, a fiancee who doesn't really love him and a future of unmitigated dimness.
Spider shakes up Charlie big-time (and not out of altruism or brotherly love) by connecting him with his heritage - explaining that he is the son of the great and timeless Anansi himself, who here takes the form of a dapper elderly man with a fondness for the ladies, fedoras and karaoke.
Indeed, karaoke plays a rather large role in "Anansi Boy." Usually when a character is said to be fond of "wine, women and song," it's understood that the song is pretty much an afterthought to the first two, but not here.
"Each person who ever was or will be has a song," Gaiman writes. "It isn't a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead."
A righteous policewoman's song, for example, begins "Evildoers beware!" She is too embarrassed to sing it, but she lives it every day.
Elsewhere in "Anansi Boys," Gaiman throws in alternate dimensions, seances, murder and a chilling homage to Hitchcock's "The Birds," all of which feel more in step with what's expected from a fantasy novel. But it's the singing that sets this book apart. It's somewhat out of place, and Gaiman knows it, and so do his characters, and that makes the song even sweeter.
Phil Kloer writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: email@example.com
c.2005 Cox News Service