Summary of American Gods
American Gods follows a man named Shadow Moon who, at the beginning of the tale, is a convict in prison. Shadow is released from prison the day after his wife and best friend are killed together in a car accident. When he is informed of the death of his wife and friend by the Warden of the prison, Shadow seems numb, unable to process the information. He merely nods. The warden informs him he will be released from prison a few days early to see to his wife's affairs.
Through a series of odd circumstances, Shadow finds himself sitting on a plane next to a man who seems to know a lot about him. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, but implies that is not entirely his real name. Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow a job working for him.
Shadow declines the offer several times but Wednesday persistently keeps turning up. While driving back home, Shadow stops in the middle of nowhere at Jack's Crocodile Bar and Restaurant. Wednesday reappears, persistent as ever. Shadow finally accepts his offer after losing to him in a coin toss. Wednesday insists upon "sealing the deal" by bringing Shadow three glasses of Mead to drink. Mead is wine made of honey, and is referred to as "the drink of the Gods." Wednesday claims it is traditional.
When Shadow asks Wednesday what he will be doing under his employ, Wednesday answers:
". . . You work for me. You protect me. You help me. You transport me from place to place. You investigate , from time to time-go places and ask questions for me. You run errands. In an emergency, but only in an emergency, you hurt people who need to be hurt. In the unlikely event of my death, you will hold my vigil. And in return I shall make sure that your needs are adequately taken care of" (33).
As Shadow begins his employment with Wednesday, he realizes that Wednesday is a con-artist, an old time grifter. He swindles people out of little bits of money here and there and people never realize they have been conned. He also has a way of charming people, especially women, to get what he wants.
His first night under the employment of Wednesday, Shadow is given a magical coin by a man who claims he is a Leprechaun named Mad Sweeney, brought from Ireland by immigrants. Shadow is a lover of coin tricks and is impressed with Mad Sweeney's ability to seemingly remove gold coins from thin air. Mad explains he is removing them from thin air, actually from the Sun's horde, and shows Shadow how to do it. Mad then gives Shadow a gold coin he gets in this way. This is when things start to become strange for Shadow, but he does not react strongly to the strange things happening around him, he just accepts them with a sometimes curious but also numb demeanor. Wednesday queries Shadow about this:
Wednesday looked at him with amusement and something else—irritation perhaps. Or pride. "Why don't you argue?" asked Wednesday. "Why don't you exclaim that it's all impossible? Why the hell do you just do what I say and take it all so fucking calmly?"
"Because you're not paying me to ask questions," said Shadow. And then he said, realizing the truth as the words came out of his mouth, "Anyway, nothing's really surprised me since Laura."
"Since she came back from the dead?"
"Since I learned she was screwing Robbie. That one hurt. Everything else just sits on the surface."
When Shadow goes to his wife's funeral, he throws the magic coin given to him by Mad Sweeney into the coffin as a parting gift to his dead wife.
Shortly after the funeral, Shadow and Wednesday are in a small motel, and Laura, Shadow's wife, shows up in his hotel room. It is clear that she is dead, but again, Shadow hardly reacts to this horrifying event. We later discover that the coin from Mad Sweeney was extraordinarily powerful and was responsible for Laura rising from the dead. Laura plays a big part in Shadow's process throughout the story.
Shadow quickly becomes aware that Wednesday is an incarnation of the Norse God Odin, hence the name Wednesday (Odin was Know as Wóden in Old English-Wednesday is Wóden's day). Shadow begins to meet many other washed-up old Gods who have been all but forgotten. Wednesday seeks them out, one by one, to try to convince them to join a war between the old Gods and the new Gods.
After a big meeting of the old God's at a place called The House on the Rock, Shadow gets kidnapped and questioned by two of the henchmen to the New Gods known as Mr. Stone and Mr. Wood. His dead wife Laura shows up while he is sleeping, kills all of the men holding Shadow captive, and releases Shadow. He is sure he will be blamed for the murders but she tells him to just get away quickly before the murders are discovered.
While walking through the woods away from his place of capture, Shadow finds himself being directed by a huge raven (one of Odin's twin ravens Hugin or Mugin, undoubtedly) to a town called Cairo, Illinois. He is told to find Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis in Cairo and to help them. Mr. Jacquel and Mr. Ibis (the ancient Egyptian Gods Anubis and Thoth) run a funeral home., Shadow stays on to help them for a time. While he is there he also meets Bast (the ancient Egyptian Goddess Bastet, who takes the form of a cat).
The new Gods are Media, Technology, Drugs, Money, and so on. The new Gods have henchmen named Mr. Town and Mr. Road. They show an interest in Shadow. They want to recruit him to their side. No one can say why Shadow seems to be so important, but he is. Everyone wants him to work for them.
Wednesday sets Shadow up with a little apartment in a small town in cold Northern Michigan. He informs Shadow this will be his home for the next several months so he can hide from everyone. During the time he is there, Wednesday shows up intermittently and drags him off to find more old Gods to recruit.
Shadow gets arrested in Lakeside because he is suspected of the murders of Mr. Stone and Mr. Wood. He is about to be picked up by the new Gods henchmen when two of Wednesdays allies, Anansi and Chernobog (both old Gods) pretend to be Police Officers and get Shadow out of jail. While Shadow is in jail, the television suddenly begins to play a scene of Wednesday being detained and then murdered by the new Gods. Shadow sees them blow off Wednesday's head with a gun.
After Anansi and Chernobog retrieve Shadow from the Lakeside Police, they agree to meet with the new Gods in a neutral place where they cannot harm each other, to pick up Wednesday's body so they can give it the proper rights deserving of a God of old. Shadow remembers that when Wednesday first employed him, Wednesday told him if he were to die Shadow would have to perform his vigil as part of the employment contract. He decides that is exactly what he is going to do. The vigil consists of Shadow being hung from "The World Tree" for 9 days and nights without food or water (just as Odin was in the legend). It will surely kill him, but he does it anyways.
Shadow goes through many trials on the World Tree. He does not die during the vigil, but instead receives spiritual visions and becomes truly alive. He realizes all the things he has been missing in his life and that he has never felt truly alive, which is why his temperament is passive throughout the book.
This is illustrated in chapter 12: "'It must be hard,' said Laura, 'not being alive.' [Shadow replied,] 'You mean it's hard for you to be dead?...' 'No,' she said... 'But I was talking about you.' 'I'm alive,' said Shadow. 'I am not dead, remember?' 'You're not dead,' she said. 'But I am not sure you're alive, either. Not really'" (326). Laura goes on to tell Shadow how sometimes even when Shadow is there, it seems like she is alone.
Shadow realizes during his visions on the World Tree that Wednesday is his father, implying that Shadow might possibly Odin's son Balder, the God of light and purity. He also realizes that Wednesday has orchestrated the entire war between the old Gods and the new so that the Gods would be slain in the name of Odin, giving Odin energy and life. Wednesday is performing a two-man con (a grifter method which he describes to Shadow during one of their road trips) with his other son Loki, who Shadow knows from prison. Loki is Mr. World, the supposed leader of the opposition in the war.
When Shadow is saved from the tree by Easter (whom is portrayed as a beautiful, fair, curvy woman he met earlier in the book) and Horus (the Egyptian God), he goes to the cave where Loki and Wednesday have their center of operations. He discovers Loki dying by the hand of his dead wife, Laura, and the ghost of Wednesday. Shadow confronts them and tells them he knows about their two-man con act.
Wednesday's ghost tells Shadow that he did his job perfectly by being there to divert everyone's attention (like a good coin trick diverts the eye from the hand holding the coin) while Wednesday pulled off his betrayal of both the old and new Gods. As Wednesday's son, Shadow performing the vigil was meant to be the ultimate sacrifice to Odin, giving him a great deal of power. Loki dies, and the ghost of Wednesday fades away. Shadow is left to end the war himself, which he does.
Shadow shows up on the battle field and explains to both sides that they were scammed. He explains that Wednesday (Odin) simply wanted them all to die in his name, giving him power. All of the Gods simply disappear from the battlefield, and it is over.
The epilogue follows Shadow as he makes amends with the people he met along his adventure with Wednesday, even leading him to a small town in Iceland where he meets another incarnation of Odin. There are also many sub-plots and short stories incorporated into this long, meandering tale. But, if you want to know about those, you will have to read the book yourself.