When you take the free-fall plunge into a Neil Gaiman book, anything can happen. And anything invariably does, which makes reading this awesomely inventive British writer both thrilling and frustrating: Gaiman doesn't operate by consistent rules, but according to the arbitrary whims of his jumpy imagination. In 2001's American Gods, the deities of U.S. immigrants haunt the fringes of society, supplanted by ''gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone.'' In his trippy follow-up, Anansi Boys, Gaiman contrives a family history for one of those cast-off gods, the trickster Anansi of African folklore.
Fat Charlie Nancy, the novel's milquetoast hero, is a bland, upstanding bookkeeper who has actively tried to forget his womanizing, cheroot-smoking father, Mr. Nancy (or Anansi), who's carousing somewhere in the American South. When Charlie's fiancée insists he invite Dad to the wedding, Charlie dutifully tries to contact ''the old goat,'' only to learn that he's recently died while singing in a karaoke bar, collapsing on a buxom blonde and denuding her of her tube top as his final act on earth. Charlie also learns he has a long-lost brother, Spider, whom he can summon by chatting up an arachnid. Sure enough, Spider turns up and proceeds to steal Charlie's girl and mess with his head.
Gaiman who wrote the screenplay for this month's film MirrorMask and is best known for his Sandman comic series describes his fizzy new book as ''a magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic, although that leaves out the detective bits and much of the food.'' You can't come up with a finer description than that for this daft tale, which zigzags around the globe before arriving in the Caribbean for a madcap finale. It's a giddy but somewhat unsatisfying ride. Whenever Gaiman runs into a narrative jam, he veers off in an exhilarating new direction, a diversionary tactic that starts to feel like a cheat. In his gravity-free fictional universe, nothing he has to say seems to carry any weight.