…[Mr. Ibis] was an artist and  his tales should not be seen as literal constructs but as imaginative recreations, truer than the truth…
Michael Chabon’s blurb on the cover ought to let readers know that popular fantasy writer Neil Gaiman has got literary cred. Gaiman himself says of American Gods, published in 2001 with its television series adaptation dropping next year, that it “feels an awful lot like a first novel” since it was “the first long work I’ve done without any collaborative input from anyone, and that wasn’t first somethinsg else.” The novel begins with its protagonist Shadow near the end of a three-year stint in prison, which he largely endured by having “taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife,” and by having read a lot of Herodotus thanks to his cellmate, Low Key. Just before Shadow is released, he learns his beloved wife has died in a car wreck (she was so beloved that, plot-wise, she was slated for quick execution). On his way home, Shadow has a dream (dreams will figure heavily throughout):
“Changes are coming,” said the buffalo without moving its lips. “There are certain decisions that will have to be made.”
Firelight flickered from wet cave walls.
“Where am I?” Shadow asked.
“In the earth and under the earth,” said the buffalo man. “You are where the forgotten wait.” His eyes were liquid black marbles, and his voice was a rumble from beneath the world. He smelled like wet cow. “Believe,” said the rumbling voice. “If you are to survive, you must believe.”
“Believe what?” asked Shadow. “What should I believe?” …
“Everything,” roared the buffalo man.
On the plane home, Shadow meets a man who introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday and asks Shadow to work for him; Shadow declines, thinking he has a job lined up with his friend at home. Then Wednesday turns up again at a bar Shadow goes to, repeating the job offer.
In chapter 2, in the same bar, Shadow learns from the newspaper that the friend who was supposed to hire him died in the car wreck with Laura. Shadow flips a coin for show as to whether to take Wednesday’s job offer, but when he tries to beat the flip with a coin trick, he loses (Wednesday: “Rigged games are the easiest ones to beat”). Then Wednesday’s friend Mad Sweeney shows up and tries to teach Shadow a new coin trick, giving him a coin. They all get drunk on “mead” to seal the deal of Shadow’s working for Wednesday, and Shadow and Sweeney get into a drunken fistfight. Shadow wakes up the next morning in a car Wednesday’s driving and watches him trick a gas-station checkout girl.
“What are you, a two-bit con artist?”
Wednesday nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose I am. Among other things.”
Shadow goes to Laura’s funeral, where her best friend comes in and spits on her corpse, then tells him that “[y]our wife died with my husband’s cock in her mouth, Shadow.” At the cemetery, he flips the coin Mad Sweeney gave him down into Laura’s gravesite to be buried with her. On his way back to his motel, he’s abducted by some guys, including “a fat kid,” who want to know what Wednesday’s up to, but Shadow can’t tell them much, so they drop him at his motel.
Back at the motel in chapter 3, Shadow has a dream of “gods who have been forgotten.” A voice tells him:
“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”
When he wakes up his wife Laura is there. She concedes she’s dead and tells him what happened the night she died, but says she still loves him and that she will watch out for him. She also thanks him for the coin, which she’s wearing around her neck. Her kiss confirms to him that she’s really dead.
In chapter 4, Wednesday and Shadow head toward what Wednesday deems “one of the most important places in the entire country,” to “wine and dine” some people he needs to “enlist” in his “current enterprise.” In Chicago, they stay with a family of Russians headed by a man named Czernobog, who tells them how he used to be a “knocker,” sledgehammering cows to death on the slaughterhouse floor, and who seems to want nothing to do with Wednesday’s plans, whatever they are. They play checkers, and Shadow offers a wager that if he wins, Czernobog help Wednesday, and Czernobog agrees on the condition that if he wins, he gets to sledgehammer Shadow in the head like a cow. Shadow loses the first game, but goads him into another, which Shadow wins, so after Czernobog helps Wednesday, he’ll get to sledgehammer Shadow. On the couch that night, Shadow dreams he’s been shot:
I think I just died. He remembered hearing and believing, as a child, that if you died in your dreams, you would die in real life. He did not feel dead. He opened his eyes, experimentally.
One of the Russian sisters, Zorya Polunochnaya, gives him a silver liberty dollar she tells him is the moon.
In chapter 5, the next day, in order to finance his wining and dining, Shadow helps Wednesday rob a bank (which it turns out is the same crime Shadow was doing jail time for in the first place). A snowstorm appears after Wednesday instructs Shadow to create one. Wednesday pretends to be a bank employee taking money from people trying to deposit it in an outdoor slot he’s put an out-of-order sign on, and sets Shadow up at a payphone that he then directs inquiring policemen to call to confirm his story.
“That Sweeney guy said you were a hustler.”
“He was right. But that is the least of what I am. And the least of what I need you for, Shadow.”
They drive to the House on the Rock, a tourist attraction, such attractions being, according to Wednesday, places people erected when “they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void.” (Wandering around the House Shadow receives a fortune, part of which reads “Like Father, Like Son.”) They meet up with Czernobog, and wander around what increasingly seems like a funhouse, and Shadow is introduced to an old man named Mr. Nancy. They all get on a carousel.
Then the lights went out, and Shadow saw the gods.
In chapter 6, Shadow finds out Wednesday is the god Odin, and they ride their now-mobile carousel mounts to Odin’s Hall, where other gods that Wednesday has convened have met to hear Wednesday’s pitch. He warns them that “[t]here’s a storm coming, and it’s not a storm of our making.” Further,
“When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean.”…
“Now, as all of you will have had reason aplenty to discover for yourselves, there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.
“They are aware of us, and they fear us, and they hate us,” said Odin. “You are fooling yourselves if you believe otherwise. They will destroy us, if they can. It is time for us to band together. It is time for us to act.”
Shadow is then driving some of the gods to a restaurant when he’s knocked out with a gun butt. He’s interrogated by two “spooks” in dark suits who identify themselves as Mister Stone and Mister Wood; they beat him up when they’re not pleased with his answers to their questions about Wednesday. He wakes to Laura shaking him after she’s killed Wood and Stone; per Zorya Polunochnaya’s advice, he asks her what she wants, and she says to be able to live again.
In chapter 7, Shadow flees the boxcar he was being held in through the woods, led to the road by a talking raven who instructs him to go to Kay-Ro. On his drive down to Cairo, Illinois, he picks up a girl named Sam who’s hitchhiking to El Paso, Illinois and who tells him a story about human sacrifice to Odin she heard in her religion class. (“White people have some fucked-up gods, Mister Shadow.”) At his motel that night, Lucille Ball talks to him from the television:
“I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”
She wants him to work for her but he decides he prefers Wednesday’s sensibilities. He arrives in Cairo and meets Ibis and Jaquel.
In chapter 8 (which Gaiman has declared his personal favorite), Shadow helps out at Jaquel and Ibis’s funeral parlor, learning they are Egyptian gods. Mr. Ibis tells him he’s been writing stories about “coming to America.” Shadow has a dream of having intensely pleasurable sex with a woman who won’t tell him who she is; when he wakes his bruises from his earlier beatings have vanished. He meets Mad Sweeney under a bridge, who tells him the coin he gave him earlier was the wrong coin, and he needs it back, but Shadow says he can’t get it. Sweeney tells him not to trust Wednesday and asks for money; a while later he turns up frozen to death with a bottle of Jameson. That night they toast him and Mr. Ibis tells the story of how Sweeney came to America thanks to a woman’s belief in him as a leprechaun. Wednesday turns up at the funeral parlor and he and Shadow head north. END PART 1.
In chapter 9, at a Wisconsin diner, Wednesday describes to Shadow two two-man cons, the Fiddle Game and the Bishop Game, before he (Wednesday) picks up the waitress with his indefatigable charm. Shadow intuits that Wednesday used to have a partner. Wednesday gives Shadow ID papers for Mike Ainsel and packs him off on a bus to the small town of Lakeside. On the way, Shadow eavesdrops on two girls’ inane conversation, and when he arrives gets a ride to his apartment from a nice old man named Hinzelmann who tells crazy stories.
In Interlude 1, we see a conversation between the hitchhiker Samantha, whom Shadow gave a ride to earlier, and some authorities interrogating her about him.
In chapter 10, the next day, Shadow tries to walk to town in minus-thirty-degree weather and almost freezes before he’s given a ride by police chief Mulligan, who gets him set up with provisions. At home later, Hinzelmann visits Shadow and gets him to buy tickets for a raffle about when an old klunker will fall through the ice of the frozen lake, then Shadow introduces himself to his neighbor, Marguerite Olson. Wednesday picks him up for a trip to Las Vegas to see someone whose name Shadow cannot retain. Wednesday meets whoever it is and gets them to join the plan. Shadow asks if he can bring Laura back to life, and Wednesday tells Shadow all the charms he knows, among other things:
“Those were the first nine charms I learned. Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point. I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me.”
He tells Shadow he can’t bring Laura back but intimates that if Shadow were to find thunderbirds, they could.
In chapter 11, Shadow officially buys his raffle tickets from Hinzelmann. He goes to the library to look up thunderbirds and winds up buying a book of old town letters with a picture of Hinzelmann’s grandfather in it. Chad Mulligan tells him the story of how Marguerite Olson’s son vanished. He dreams of thunderbirds. They go to San Francisco to meet with a woman who turns out to be the goddess Easter. Wednesday tries and eventually succeeds in convincing her she should help them because she’s as forgotten as the rest of the gods, proving his point by asking their coffee waitress, whom he later tries to stiff but whom Shadow pays, causing Wednesday to go off on a litany of all the bad things she’d ever done. Back in Lakeside, Shadow learns that Alison McGovern, one of the girls from his bus trip in, is missing, and he helps look for her. He runs into the other girl from the bus, who mentions that several other teenagers have disappeared from Lakeside in the past.
In chapter 12, Shadow and Wednesday are driving to South Dakota when they’re diverted by a road block that causes Wednesday to perform a charm that transfers them “backstage,” enabling them to escape. While backstage, Shadow touches some bones that momentarily transfer him into the mind of Mister Town, one of their pursuers from the road block. They visit a guy named Whiskey Jack who lives on an Indian reservation and trade his nephew their Winnebago for his car. Back in Lakeside, police chief Mulligan asks for love advice and Shadow advises him to go for it. He makes more trips with Wednesday to meet with gods and Wednesday seems generally pleased with the progress of his plans. On a walk around Lakeside, Shadow runs into Laura in a graveyard, and she tells him he’s not dead but he doesn’t really seem alive.
In Interlude 2, we see Samantha the hitchhiker further questioned, and in Interlude 3 we see Laura trying to get a job. In chapter 13, Marguerite Olson invites Shadow to a dinner party where he meets her sister, who turns out to be the hitchhiker Samantha. Sam talks him into going to a bar with him to talk about why she’s been questioned, and he tells her the truth about everything that’s been going on:
“Just tell me you’re one of the good guys.”
“I can’t,” said Shadow. “I wish I could. But I’m doing my best.”
They run into Chief Mulligan with his date from out of town–Laura’s former friend Audrey, who freaks when she sees Shadow, forcing Mulligan to take him down to the station. Shadow calls Mr. Ibis at the funeral parlor to try to get ahold of Wednesday. Reading the book of old town record’s while he waits to be officially arrested, Shadow notices that there are old records of several kids going missing. Mulligan arrests him for violating his parole. While he’s waiting for some other jurisdiction to pick him up, his guard falls asleep and on the TV Shadow sees Mister Town and Mister World shoot Wednesday in the head. Shadow’s picked up by a suspicious car that turns out to be Mr. Nancy and Czernobog. END PART 2.
In chapter 14, Czernobog, Nancy, and Shadow drive South in a VW van procured for them by the King of the Dwarves. At a restaurant they get a call from the opposition offering for them to come get Wednesday’s body, and they meet in a supposedly neutral space, the centermost point of the country, which is an abandoned tourist attraction. They meet Mister Town and a woman who introduces herself as Media:
“Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn’t she the one who killed her children?”
“Different woman,” said Mr. Nancy. “Same deal.”
Shadow sees Wednesday in his dream that night. They have to wait until midnight the next day to collect the body, according to “the rules.” Media tries and fails to seduce Shadow to their side. Shadow meets the opposition’s driver, his old cellmate Low Key, and figure out he’s the god Loki. Shadow says he must have known Wednesday because they’re both Norse pantheon gods, but Loki claims they were never friends. They get the body and Wednesday’s glass eye, and Shadow remembers Wednesday telling him that if he died, Shadow should hold his vigil. To do so, they go to a “world tree” in Virginia, where some women help tie Shadow to it.
In chapter 15, Shadow hangs on the tree, enduring much pain, and is visited by an elephant man who tells him it’s “in the trunk.” After some days a squirrel gives him some water. Laura comes to him and wants to cut him down, but he says he has to do this. Later, his heart stops beating.
In chapter 16, Shadow, dressed now, walks down stone steps and meets Zorya Polunochnaya guarding the gate to the underworld. He gives her the liberty dollar she gave him and has to choose a path–“hard truths” or “fine lies”; he chooses truths, and revisits key points in his life–learning of Laura’s death, the original bank robbery, his mother dying, interrogating his mother about who his father is, his mother dancing at a tavern with a man who turns out to be Wednesday (the night Shadow is conceived). He meets a feline-like woman named Bast (the one he slept with in a dream earlier) and she takes his heart. He gets into a boat piloted by Mr. Ibis. Then Shadow is judged in the Hall of the Dead by Mr. Jacquel, who recounts his crimes (summarized), but they don’t outweigh the feather on the scales they use to judge your crimes against. Shadow accepts the nothingness of death.
In chapter 17, the gods all gather at Rock City, on the top of Lookout Mountain. Laura follows Shadow’s instructions to drink water at a farmhouse near the tree. “The water of time, which comes from the spring of fate, Urd’s Well, is not the water of life”–but it revives her temporarily. Back at Rock City, the newer gods of the opposition gather, including the fat kid. Town drives to the world tree Shadow is hanging from, which Mr. World has instructed him to cut a stick from. After doing so he pokes Shadow with it so Shadow bleeds. A hawk tries to convince Easter, in Rock City, to go help Shadow at the tree. Town keeps getting lost trying to find his way away from the tree, and picks up a hitchhiker–Laura. In Rock City, Mister World explains his plans to the fat kid:
“I’m going to take the stick, and I’m going to throw it over the armies as they come together. As I throw it, it will become a spear. And then, as the spear arcs over the battle, I’m going to shout ‘I dedicate this battle to Odin.’ “
“Huh?” said the fat kid. “Why?”
“Power,” said Mr. World. He scratched his chin. “And food. A combination of the two. You see, the outcome of the battle is unimportant. What matters is the chaos, and the slaughter.”
He then initiates the slaughter by killing the fat kid for having told him too much.
In chapter 18, the old gods debate if it’s time to make their move. Shadow drinks beer with Whiskey Jack, who says he’s a culture hero, not a god, and that it’s not going to be a war, but a bloodbath. Shadow finally sees that the war between the old and new gods is being engineered as Wednesday’s elaborate two-man con. He’s pulled from the underworld as Easter and the hawk-headed man free and revive him. Town thinks he’s in love with Laura; when they get to Rock City, she kills him right before he’s going to deliver the stick. Shadow flies to Rock City on the thunderbird Easter rode in on. Laura takes the stick in and finds Mister World, who turns out to be Loki. She stabs him with the stick as it becomes a spear, and she dedicates his death to Shadow. As Shadow’s entering Rock City, he hears Wednesday’s voice tell him that he, Shadow, was the misdirection in the coin trick. He finds Loki, who’s still alive and has managed to throw the spear. They were playing both sides, creating a massacre in which all deaths would be dedicated to Odin, allowing him to gain a ton of power back through the sacrifice of all the dead gods. Loki dies but Wednesday says they’ll both be brought back, because the game is rigged. Shadow says rigged games are the easiest to beat, and goes out on the battlefield and tells everyone what Odin and Loki were up to and succeeds in convincing them to stop the battle. Afterwards he finds Laura, who was also stabbed by the spear when she stabbed Loki. He take the coin from around her neck and she dies. END PART 3.
In chapter 19, an Epilogue, Shadow and Mr. Nancy drive to Florida and Shadow sings cathartic karaoke at a bar. He dreams of the buffalo-headed man who commends him for making peace and tells him that he, the buffalo man, is the land. Shadow remembers being told it was important to remember “It’s in the trunk” when he was on the tree.
In chapter 20, Shadow returns to Lakeside and goes out on the thin ice of the barely frozen lake to the klunker, where he finds the body of Alison McGovern in the trunk right before the car crashes through the ice (it is the day he picked for the raffle). He almost drowns, but then someone pulls him up. He wakes up in Hinzelmann’s bathtub wondering how Hinzelmann could have gotten him there singlehandedly. He accuses Hinzelmann of killing all those kids and asks why he let him live; Hinzelmann says he owed Wednesday a debt. He gave the town a lake and prosperity in return for one kid a year. Mulligan shows up and overhears, and Hinzelmann throws a fire poker at him, and Mulligan shoots him dead. Shadow remembers when he made snow and channels his energy to eliminate the day’s events from Mulligan’s head. Shadow goes to see Sam the hitchhiker but she’s with a woman so he just leaves her flowers. He then goes to see Czernobog, who merely taps him with the sledgehammer.
In the postscript, Shadow, enjoying his freedom, travels to Reykjavik, where he’s visited by an old man who says he’s Odin. Shadow gives him back his eye via a coin trick. THE END.
Or almost the end. Many of these aforementioned chapters end with a section involving different characters, in which something extreme or unnatural happens; many of these sections read as stand-alone short stories. In chapter 1’s section, “Somewhere in America,” a man has intensely pleasurable sex with a woman whose vagina then swallows him whole.
In chapter 3’s section, “A.D. 813,” a bard on a ship
…sang of Odin, the All-Father, who was sacrificed to himself as bravely and as nobly as others were sacrificed to him. He sang of the nine days that the All-Father hung from the world-tree, his side pierced and dripping from the spear-point’s wound, and he sang them all the things the All-Father had learned in his agony: nine names, and nine runes, and twice-nine charms. When he told them of the spear piercing Odin’s side…
These Northmen sailors in pre-Viking America make human sacrifices to Odin, but then are wiped out by a group they took a sacrifice from. When the Vikings arrive a hundred years later, they find the gods Odin, Tyr, and Thor waiting for them.
In chapter 4’s section, “1721,” Mr. Ibis is writing in his journal about how American history is fictional. He writes about Essie Tregowan, a British woman who loved listening to tales about “piskies” (who are apparently red-haired men) and was sentenced to “transportation” to America for helping rob a family she worked as a maid for, but convinces the ship captain to marry her and take her back to England, where she’s eventually discovered and sentenced to a life term of transportation. In Virginia she tells her children tales of, among others, the piskies, whom she still makes offerings to. “She told them all these things, and they believed, because she believed.” She convinces the man she’s an indentured servant to to marry her and manages the farm well after he dies until one of her sons kills one of her others (his half brother) in a dispute over it. As an old lady she encounters a red-haired man, who proposes to her, and she dies. (We’ll later recognize this piskie as Mad Sweeney the leprechaun.)
In chapter 7’s section, “Somewhere in America” (again), we get the story of Salim, who’s in NYC on a business trip from Oman trying to peddle cheap touristy trinkets from his brother-in-law’s factory. After Salim’s last-ditch effort to entice a big company as a customer, he’s considering hurling himself in front of a cab, but then gets in one instead with a driver who turns out to be a “jinn,” as he sees from the man’s eyes when he accidentally knocks off his sunglasses. They have passionate sex that night and Salim wakes to find the jinn gone, along with his wallet and souvenir trinkets, which the jinn has replaced with his own, and so Salim goes off to assume his identity.
In chapter 11’s section, “Coming to America 1778,” Mr. Ibis writes another story, of twins sold by their uncle. Wututu and Agasu, sold from Africa and wind up in America, are separated as slaves. Agasu dies young; Wututu continues to worship the African gods and becomes renowned for knowing things among her people, and eventually meets her brother’s ghost.
In chapter 12’s section, “Interlude,” we’re told that the war has started though no one knows it, and we see the goddess Bilquis, a half demon who works as a prostitute, killed by a john who picks her up who knows who she is.
In chapter 13’s section, “14,000 BC,” nomads roamed the Northern Plains who worshipped the skull of a mammoth as a god, and who tells them (after they ritualistically eat dried mushrooms) to migrate, but one woman, Atsula, refuses to listen, as she believes gods come from their hearts, but they go anyway, crossing a land bridge to a new land. THE END.
In an interview included after the audiobook, Gaiman states that the book’s structure is simple–a journey, road trip, The Odyssey. He also says the book has two main characters: Shadow, and America. It seems Shadow is the “anthropomorphized personification“ of America’s shadow self, as per Gaiman’s (as per Wikipedia) “trademark use of anthropomorphic personification of various metaphysical entities.” He’s also potentially, ironically, through his acting out of the Norse myth at the apparent age of 33, a Christ-figure.
Gaiman keeps us turning pages with the question of what exactly the endeavor is that Wednesday has enlisted Shadow’s help with. There are clues pretty quickly (end of chapter 1 quickly) that Wednesday has got mysterious capabilities, and with Laura’s rising from the dead on top of that, we’re pretty intrigued to know how such things could happen. Gaiman also pulls off the reader’s believing in the reality of Laura’s resurrection with the specificity of the physical details–that she’s “still wearing the navy blue suit they had buried her in,” her “odor of rot, of flowers and preservatives,” the fact that she can’t taste her cigarette, that her coin still has “black dirt” on it, her tongue being “cold, and dry, and it tasted of cigarettes and of bile,” the smell of “cigarettes and preservatives” that lingers after she leaves.
Gaiman brings similar detail to bear on the believability of the gods themselves:
He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil mustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast’s mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with blackflies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ocher leaf.
This is where we also get to know more about Wednesday’s true identity:
“I told you I would tell you my names. This is what they call me. I am called Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and I am the Hooded One. I am All-Father, and I am Gondlir Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory; my wolves are Freki and Geri; my horse is the gallows.”
Curiously, he omits the name Odin. This is trickery, showing us his capacity for deception even here; he’s not putting it up front that that’s who he is just like he’s not putting up from what he’s really enlisting everyone’s “help” for…though Shadow calls him out for being Odin just a moment later.
Another way Gaiman secures the reader’s belief in this wacky concept is by having a protagonist who is in the position of being equally skeptical. This protagonist, too, is convinced by appeals to his senses (and a dream that entreated him to “believe”):
I don’t really believe, Shadow thought. I don’t believe any of this. Maybe I’m still fifteen. Mom’s still alive and I haven’t even met Laura yet. Everything that’s happened so far has been some kind of especially vivid dream. And yet he could not believe that either. All we have to believe with is our senses, the tools we use to perceive the world: our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted. And even if we do not believe, then still we cannot travel in any other way than the road our senses show us; and we must walk that road to the end.
Gaiman himself admits that rendering the believability of the concept was part of what he enjoyed about the process, having prior experience in that arena:
As I was writing [an old sequence in the Sandman series] I kept expecting the whole suspension-of-disbelief mechanism to collapse, you know, you’re asking people to believe how many impossible things can you believe, and how can you possibly have all these different pantheons around and standing next to each other directly in the same environment? And what I discovered was they worked just fine, if you do them with belief, if you grant them a certain amount of credibility, they will look after you. So when I came to write American Gods, I knew that was gonna work, that was one piece of the equation that I figured would definitely work, because I’d seen it work before and I loved it, I loved the feeling that you get when you get, that moment when they’re all going up the hill, to Rock City, and they’ve all gathered there, the moment, even when you’ve got them all at the House on the Rock, and just the idea that you can have Anancy the African spider god and Odin, and Czernobog, these three grumpy old men-well, Nancy isn’t that grumpy–but it was a delight.
His real stroke of genius is personifying gods that had not been conceived of in such a sense before, which appropriately comes to its most satisfying fruition in the Rock City climax:
There were car gods there: a powerful, serious-faced contingent, with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth: recipients of human sacrifice on a scale undreamed-of since the Aztecs. Even they looked uncomfortable. Worlds change.
And, as the AV Club review puts it,
Shadow’s solid, believable grounding in the minute trivia of the real world rivals the book’s grounding in the fantastic and arcane world of ancient theologies; those two aspects meet and merge to form a cohesive, compelling whole that approaches Gaiman’s finest work.
Gaiman spent a significant amount of time developing gods not through developing their actual characters, but by offering stories, in the sections at the end of some of the chapters, of the people who had brought the gods over here in the first place. So much time is spent on these sections it seems like they’re setup for something more significant, like, for instance, these particular gods figuring heavily in the final battle at Rock City, or playing some role in Shadow’s getting there, as Easter does. It’s interesting (though perhaps disappointing for a plot-oriented reader) that in the end the work they do seems to be predominantly thematic, with the exception of the story that involves Mad Sweeney, whose coin bringing Laura back to life winds up being the gesture that undoes all of Wednesday’s plans.
Another notable aspect of Gaiman’s is foreshadowing. Coin tricks figure heavily throughout the book. From chapter 7:
“Come on,” said the man in the gold-rimmed spectacles to the dog, “it was only a coin trick. It’s not like he was doing an underwater escape.”
“Not yet,” said the dog. “But he will.”