Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys is tremendously entertaining. Set in the same universe as his last novel, 2001's multiple-award-winning American Gods, Anansi Boys is both shorter and funnier. Whereas American Gods was essentially a road-trip novel, albeit one involving cast-away deities from world mythology, Anansi Boys is a mismatched-buddy comedy. Though the book incorporates bits of romantic comedy, crime drama, and horror, among other genres, the heart of the story is the tale of two startlingly different brothers.
"Fat Charlie" Nancy is perpetually embarrassed by his father, a dapper old man who talks to everyone, loves karaoke, and plays practical jokes on everyone-including Fat Charlie. After the elder Mr. Nancy's funeral, Charlie discovers two things: his father was Anansi, the story-telling trickster god; and Charlie was not an only child.
Fat Charlie soon meets his brother, Spider, who is everything that Charlie wishes he was: confident, well-liked, and the center of attention. Spider, who inherited their father's powers, immediately moves into Charlie's apartment and begins putting the moves on his fiancée, Rosie. Fat Charlie, desperate to rid himself of his troublesome brother, enlists some unorthodox assistance, and things progress from there.
As in American Gods and Gaiman's first novel, Neverwhere, the earthbound protagonist is forcefully introduced into a world where magic is real. Gaiman does not play the notion of magic for laughs; he takes that, the power of story, and the power of song for granted. The humor, in a tradition recognizable to fans of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse, comes from topics that include Fat Charlie's nebbishy qualities, the mismatch between him and Spider, droll secondary characters such as the talent agent who speaks entirely in clichés, and Gaiman's keen observation of character:
Which, Fat Charlie explained, after briefly choking on a Brazil nut, was really the last thing you wanted at your wedding, after all, wasn't it, your father turning up and being the life and soul of the party. He said that his father was, he had no doubt, still the most embarrassing person on God's Green Earth. He added that he was perfectly happy not to have seen the old goat for several years, and that the best thing his mother ever did was to leave his father and come to England to stay with her Aunt Alanna. He buttressed this by stating categorically that he was damned, double-damned, and quite possibly even thrice-damned if he was going to invite his father. In fact, said Fat Charlie in closing, the best thing about getting married was not having to invite his dad to their wedding.
And then Fat Charlie saw the expression on Rosie's face and the icy glint in her normally friendly eyes, and he corrected himself hurriedly, explaining that he meant the second-best, but it was already much too late. (p. 7)
Anansi Boys also draws on the structure of Shakespearean comedy-perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Gaiman's Sandman comic could be interpreted as a decade-long homage to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Anansi Boys is a quick and terribly enjoyable book. Gaiman keeps things moving along, with far fewer digressions than those that crowded American Gods. But that book was more psychologically complex than this one, and more hangs on that tale than this. Anansi Boys reads quite a bit like an extended film treatment, whereas Gaiman's previous book was far more novelistic.
The reader may be able to keep one or more steps ahead of Fat Charlie, and the book's end should surprise nobody, but that's not a problem. As Gaiman should know, as author of a road-trip novel, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. Anansi Boys is a great ride, with great company.