By Neil Gaiman
Morrow, 352 pp., $26.95
If you read fantasy fiction, you can't avoid the productive, ubiquitous Neil Gaiman. And if you have sampled his encyclopedic serial graphic novel ''The Sandman" (primus inter pares among his many adult comics), his varied and entertaining short stories (collected most recently in ''Smoke and Mirrors"), or his earlier novels for adults of all ages (''Neverwhere," ''Stardust," ''American Gods"), you won't want to.
Gaiman also writes terrific books for children (''The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish," the young adult supernatural chiller ''Coraline"), scripts movies based on his stories, composes nifty poems and songs, dresses in cool clothes and hangs out with rock stars, cheerfully signs autographs and chats with fans, and exudes modesty, graciousness, and social responsibility.
His new novel, ''Anansi Boys," compels immediate attention with a punning title on the English abusive phrase ''nancy boys" that will probably play better over there than here, where elected officials, among others, prefer to cast macho aspersions on ''girlie men."
The title is, however, a diversionary tactic. Not only are this novel's fraternal protagonists emphatically not nancy boys, its central figure, ''Fat Charlie" Nancy, hasn't carried any spare pounds since early childhood. The novel thus genially accommodates these -- and many other -- contradictions and paradoxes.
''Anansi Boys" is a thematic sequel to ''American Gods" (2001), in which Gaiman crafted amusing variations on an ingenious premise: that the ''old gods" of world cultures had immigrated to America, like many of their worshipers and, interestingly, like Gaiman himself -- a born-and-raised Briton who is now a Minnesotan.
One such deity is Anansi, the West African trickster who assumed the bodily form of a spider and earned legendary fame as both an inveterate prankster and the savior who reclaimed the world's vast repository of stories from his archenemy, Tiger, an avatar of hungry energy, who had stolen them.
We get to know this story's free-spirited and footloose Mr. Nancy only after the fact, following his sudden death in a Florida karaoke bar, preceded by his antic rendition of ''What's New, Pussycat?" The news reaches his surviving son, Charlie, a 30-ish London-based computer geek, who dutifully makes the transatlantic flight to attend his dad's funeral, commune with old family friends Mrs. Higgler and, through her, the agelessly sinister Mrs. Dunwiddie, and attempt to process the alarming disclosure that ''your father was a god. . . . How do you think he got away with not working?"
Charlie, drawn back to England by his ebullient girlfriend, Rosie, and his unrewarding desk job at the Grahame Coats Agency -- a sleazy financial operation that ''manages" celebrities' money -- initiates a pattern of journeys that will involve and obsess the novel's principal characters.
Charlie's hitherto unknown brother, who calls himself ''Spider," appears to have been summoned when Charlie removed a creature of the same name from his bathtub. He employs assorted magical powers to effect an exact physical resemblance to Charlie (and thus lay claim to Rosie). He then acts on a message from a mysterious Bird Woman by traveling to a barren ''place at the end of the world," where the mysteries of his and Charlie's birthright and brotherhood are explained.
Meanwhile, Charlie's vulpine boss, Grahame Coats, who has enriched himself by embezzling funds from the estate of Yorkshire comedian Morris Livingstone, eludes the suspicious questions of Livingstone's widow, Maeve, by absconding to a Caribbean island, thus enabling Gaiman to work in ironic echoes of Shakespeare's ''The Tempest."
Detective Constable Daisy Day, who had briefly been Charlie's bedmate, is assigned to investigate Coats's diversionary false accusation that Charlie has been embezzling agency money. Charlie moves back and forth between England and America, reality and dreams (in which Mr. Nancy occasionally pontificates). Higgler and Dunwiddie cast spells and conjure spirits from the vasty deep, as well as Florida, and the Bird Woman's enigmatic actions eventually make sense. Retold stories from numerous mythologies underscore and echo the Anansi boys' peregrinations and misadventures. And the brothers' confrontation with the homicidal Coats is explicitly linked to the tale of Anansi and Tiger -- particularly the latter's prophetic, if inaccurate, threat: ''When you are dead, Anansi's child -- when all your bloodline is dead -- then the stories will be mine."
But the continuity of story (and song, as Mr. Nancy knew; and myth, as Charlie's odyssey confirms) has a primal priority, beautifully articulated in the novel's complex denouement. Wrongs are righted.
And Charlie, who has become a successful singer and fathered a son, has come to terms with the powers and responsibilities of ''a boy who was half a god," having learned what Gaiman knows better, and communicates more forcefully, than any other contemporary writer: Stories and poems, songs and myths, represent us, sustain and complete us, and survive us, while also ensuring that all that's best in us survives with them.
Bruce Allen also reviews contemporary and classic fiction for Kirkus Reviews, The Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, The Sewanee Review, and The Washington Times. He lives in Kittery, Maine.