Last Updated on October 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1733
The novel American Gods consists primarily of a linear narrative, though this narrative is occasionally interrupted by short segments called "Coming to America," which chronicle the lives of various people as they make their way to the Americas for the first time. These segments spans from the first Vikings, who were given a hostile welcome, to two African twins who were brought aboard a slave ship, all the way back to the first Americans, nomads who crossed the land bridge from Siberia.
The primary narrative opens with Shadow Moon, who is in prison for unspecified reasons, with less than a week left on his sentence. He has kept his head down during his sentence and made the acquaintance of a fellow convict called "Low-Key" Lyesmith, who has taught him much about prison life and Low-Key's personal philosophy. During his time in prison, Shadow has made it his hobby to practice coin tricks.
Shadow feels uneasy when he is called into the warden's office, and his fears are well founded. He is given the news that he is being released early—immediately, in fact—because his wife, Laura, has died in a car accident. Shadow accepts this news in a state of shock and begins making his way home to Eagle Point, Indiana, for the funeral.
On the plane ride, through a seating mix-up, Shadow is mistakenly seated in first class next to a man he previously saw conning his way into first class himself. The man introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday and claims that he has a job for Shadow, as a bodyguard. Mr. Wednesday knows an uncanny amount about Shadow and seems to know even more than he lets on. Unnerved and annoyed after the plane ride, Shadow rents a car and begins to drive the rest of the way home.
Stopping by a roadside pub for dinner, Shadow once again runs into Mr. Wednesday, this time accompanied by Mad Sweeney, a man who claims to be a leprechaun. Worn down, Shadow accepts Mr. Wednesday's job and seals the pact by drinking mead, thereby agreeing to become Mr. Wednesday's bodyguard and hold vigil in case of his death. Mad Sweeney performs an impossible coin trick, and Shadow implores the man to teach him how to do it. Mad Sweeney agrees to do so if Shadow can beat him in a fight, and the two engage in a bloody brawl. When Shadow wakes, bloodied and hungover, he remembers little but finds one of Mad Sweeney's gold coins in his pocket.
Mr. Wednesday agrees to let Shadow mourn the loss of his wife before starting work. At the funeral, Shadow learns from Laura's friend Audrey that Laura was having an affair with Audrey's husband—the two only died because Laura was performing oral sex on Audrey's husband while he was driving. Shadow, stunned and hurt, tries simply to forgive Laura and tosses Mad Sweeney's coin into her grave.
On his way home, Shadow is abducted by a young man called Technical Boy, who calls himself a "new god." He tells Shadow that he knows Shadow is working for the "old gods" and to tell them that the old gods' time is over.
Shadow and Mr. Wednesday stay with Mr. Wednesday's acquaintance Czernobog and Czernobog's three sisters in Chicago, and Mr. Wednesday tries to convince Shadow to join them in a mysterious struggle. Later that night, Shadow is granted the protection of the moon through a coin that the youngest sister plucks from the sky.
Shadow's first job for Mr. Wednesday is to help him rob a bank. They carry out a two-man con in which Mr. Wednesday fakes being a bank employee, honoring transactions in the place of a broken ATM. It is the first time that Shadow sees hints of Mr. Wednesday's supernatural power, as the man seems to cause it to snow.
The two then drive to the House on the Rock, a place that Mr. Wednesday claims has enormous spiritual power in America. After a bizarre scene in which a number of eccentric men and women board a carousel, they are all transported to an ancient dining hall, where each of these strange characters is revealed to be an "old god" of an ancient culture, Wednesday himself being the Norse god Odin. The gods discuss the matter of the New Gods, and Wednesday implores them to fight. The other gods are hesitant, however, thinking a war too risky and believing that those mortals who still have faith in them will be sufficient for them to survive.
After they return to ordinary reality, the party is disrupted, and Shadow is immediately captured by two men in black suits who interrogate him and beat him, demanding information about the old gods' plans. Shadow is saved by Laura, who has been brought back to life by the coin Shadow dropped in her grave. He is told by a raven to make his way to Cairo and find "the jackal."
Shadow makes his way to Cairo, Illinois, and finds what he is looking for in the form of Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis, two men who run a funeral parlor and are, in fact, the Egyptian gods Anubis and Thoth, respectively. Shadow spends some time working for them and crosses paths with Mad Sweeney, who appears near death from alcoholism. He tells Shadow that he "gave him the wrong coin" and begs him to give it back. When Shadow refuses, Mad Sweeney falls into depression and dies.
Soon after, to keep him out of sight, Shadow is transported to a town called Lakeside, Wisconsin. It is in Lakeside that Shadow begins to find the first semblances of a normal life since his imprisonment. He begins to make friends around the town and is generally well thought of. He finds a particularly good friend in Hinzelmann, an old man who is something of a patriarch in Lakeside. The town has a tradition of leaving an old car, or "klunker," on the ice and taking bets as to when it will fall into the lake. Shadow, becoming more integrated into the community, decides to participate.
Months pass, and Shadow lives a relatively peaceful life in Lakeside, despite the fact that a young girl from the town has gone missing. Shadow joins the effort to find her, though he is frequently called upon to see other old gods and rally with them and Mr. Wednesday. During this time, the novel's central antagonist, Mr. World, is revealed. He is the leader of the new gods, and Shadow finds him uncomfortably familiar.
Eventually, Shadow's peaceful life is interrupted when Audrey, who is visiting her cousin, spots him and makes a scene about his skipping parole. Shadow, who has been operating under an assumed identity, is taken into custody. He is eventually broken out by Czernobog, who reveals to him that Mr. Wednesday has been killed.
Mr. Wednesday's death incenses the formerly hesitant old gods, and they decide to fight the new gods at all costs. The two sides meet at the very center of America, a neutral point for all gods, so that the new gods can return Mr. Wednesday's body. At the meeting, Shadow runs into his old prison acquaintance "Low-Key" Lyesmith, who is actually the Norse god Loki Liesmith and is working as a driver for the new gods.
At a tree in Virginia, Mr. Wednesday is put to rest. True to his word, Shadow decides to hold vigil for the god and is committed to the ancient Norse ritual by three women who live in a nearby shack. He is tied to the tree, where he must remain with no food or water for nine days and will likely die.
Shadow endures intense pain and madness over the next few days but finds during a storm that he finally feels alive. He is visited by a squirrel that gives him small amounts of water; by the mad Egyptian god Horus, who takes the form of a naked man perching like a bird; and by Laura, who remarks that Shadow is indeed alive now.
At long last, Shadow dies and is taken to the Underworld. It is here that he learns that Mr. Wednesday was his father, and it is implied that Shadow was conceived for the singular purpose of fulfilling the role he has so far played. His soul is weighed by Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis, and he is allowed to choose his afterlife. He chooses nothingness.
At this point, the narrative switches to the perspective of Laura, who enters the shack to ask for water after talking to Shadow. Laura is severely decayed and no longer passes for one of the living. She is given the "water of time," which, while not the water of life, will revert her to her body at the time of death. She then infiltrates the new gods and kills Mr. World, sacrificing herself.
Shadow is revived by the old goddess Easter. He realizes that the entire war was merely a two-man con by Mr. Wednesday and Mr. World, who is really Loki; their plan was to dedicate the deaths of all the gods to Mr. Wednesday, giving him more power than any other old god. Laura has thwarted their plan, as she killed Mr. World before he could dedicate the deaths to Mr. Wednesday. Shadow explains all of this to the old and new gods, diffusing the battle. He then takes Mad Sweeney's coin back from Laura, finally allowing her soul to move on.
Shadow suddenly experiences a revelation and hurries back to Lakeside with a suspicion about the klunker on the ice. His suspicion is correct, and he finds the missing girl's body in the trunk. He falls through the ice and is saved by Hinzelmann, who is revealed to be a German spirit known as a Kobold, a being from the Black Forest who has been sacrificing a child every year for the sake of the town. The sheriff of Lakeside overhears Hinzelmann's confession and kills him.
Shadow realizes that all gods are simply manifestations of humans' belief in them. He travels to Iceland, where he meets an older, simpler version of Odin and finds some closure through this last meeting with his father. Shadow shows Odin a coin trick, and Odin is amazed—but Shadow keeps the secret of how to perform the trick to himself.