Gaiman begins the novel with an excerpt from American Folklore and the Historian (a book by Richard Dorson that distinguishes genuine American folklore from “fakelore” created by corporations or marketing campaigns). In the excerpt, Dorson explains how immigrants describe their old gods as “scared to cross the ocean.” Gaiman then opens the chapter with a quote from an essay titled “The American” from Joe Miller’s Jest Book, an Americanized version of a British joke and witticism book. The essay portrays America’s boundaries as the sun, the aurora borealis, the equinoxes, and judgement day.
Gaiman begins by placing his novel within a very specific set of works about American folklore. His first quote both introduces the concept of “Old Gods” brought over from other countries and distinguishes that Gaiman will be dealing with actual legends, not just making up his own “fakelore.” The opener to the chapter meanwhile presents the irreverent and often sarcastic bent of Gaiman’s novel. He is not literally doing a survey of the gods in America—he is rather poking fun at the ways that American culture interprets itself and its gods.
A man named Shadow Moon, the protagonist, has now spent three years in prison, but he finds jail to be a relief: he knows he has gone as low as he can go. He tells this theory to his cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith, who laughs at Shadow’s “gallows humor.” Shadow marks off the days to his release on a Songbirds of North America calendar and dreams of the three things he will do once he gets out. First, Shadow will take a proper bubble bath. Second, he will make love with his beautiful wife, Laura. Third, he will stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.
Right away, Shadow is presented as a type of anti-hero. After all, prison is not something that most people see as a relief, and Shadow’s feeling about it shows that there is more to him than meets the eye. Even his name is mysterious, as “shadow” has cryptic connotations of something that can’t be entirely pinned down. Low Key’s reference to gallows humor later becomes a winking aside to Low Key’s (Loki’s) relationship to Odin, the god of the gallows in Norse mythology.
Low Key Lyesmith asks Shadow if he will be happy once he gets out of prison, but Shadow responds, “Call no man happy until he is dead.” Low Key chuckles at the Herodotus quote, having given Shadow Herodotus’ Histories to read. The other inmates have no idea who this “dead Greek” guy is. One inmate starts talking about a Greek girlfriend he used to have, who landed him in prison when he fought a man for checking the girl out. Shadow listens to the inmate’s complaint but doesn’t say much, having learned to let people serve their own time.
Shadow sets himself apart from the stereotypical “prisoner” through his interest in a highly academic book like Herodotus’ Histories. This ancient work blends factual history with fantasy, much like American Gods will do with its history of America. As both the father of history and lies, Herodotus will become somewhat of a spiritual mentor for Shadow as he learns when to lie and when to tell the truth over the course of the novel.
A few weeks later, Low Key gets suddenly transferred to another prison, leaving Shadow his copy of Histories with several contraband coins hidden in the pages so that Shadow can practice coin tricks. A month before Shadow’s release date, a warden calls Shadow into his office. The warden asks about Shadow’s wife, Laura, who is a travel agent, and about Shadow’s plans after he gets out. Shadow’s best friend Robbie has saved a personal trainer job for Shadow at the gym where Shadow used to work. Laura has already sent Shadow an e-ticket so that he can fly home as soon as he is released.
Low Key seems to have a hand in Shadow’s development, giving him Histories in the first place and sparking his interest in coin tricks. However, Low Key’s sudden disappearance marks him more as someone to watch out for than someone to trust. At this point, it looks like everything is in order for Shadow to return to a perfectly normal life, but the noir-like, mysterious, and suspenseful tone of the meeting with the warden hints that everything is not as it appears.
The last week before Shadow’s release date, he is jittery and on-edge. He calls Laura, who tries to reassure him that everything’s fine and calls him her pet name, “Puppy.” Laura started calling Shadow Puppy when they were not allowed to get a dog in their apartment. After Shadow hangs up, he talks to a fellow convict named Sam Fetisher—a seemingly ageless African American man. Sam tells Shadow that a big storm is coming, and then asks where Shadow is from. Shadow answers Chicago, and Sam winks and tells Shadow to be careful.
Like the traditional hero of a mystery novel, Shadow is jaded, terse, and on edge. Yet Laura sees Shadow completely differently, calling him “puppy” – a name that’s at odds with Shadow’s huge physique, but fits with his loyal and kindly personality. Sam Fetisher is the first hint of the supernatural in the novel, as a “fetisher” is a word for a priest who practices voodoo. Sam sees that Shadow is not entirely normal, not trusting that Shadow truly comes from Chicago, as Shadow himself believes.
Two days before Shadow’s release, a guard pulls Shadow aside. After commenting on Shadow’s strangely calm demeanor and insulting Shadow’s dark skin, the guard takes Shadow to the prison warden’s office. Shadow is worried that he has done something to delay his release, though he can think of nothing he has done wrong since his arrest. The warden, a harsh man with a bookshelf full of books about prison, tells Shadow that he will be released this afternoon instead of on Friday. Then, in a cruel “good news, bad news” joke, the warden tells Shadow that Laura has died in a car crash early this morning.
The guard at the prison sees that Shadow is strangely passive, willing to wait to be told what his life is rather than choosing it for himself. The guard also reads Shadow’s skin as African American, but isn’t entirely sure, introducing the idea that Shadow is racially ambiguous and appears differently to different people. Laura’s death is the first sign that nothing is going to go as planned for Shadow.
Shadow numbly packs his few possessions, leaving behind Low Key’s copy of Herodotus and the coins. He walks out of the prison into a freezing rain and boards the repurposed school bus that will take him and the other released inmates into the city. On the bus, Shadow has a sudden vision of himself as a prisoner in an ancient oubliette (a prison cell formed by a deep hole that can only be entered by a trapdoor in the ceiling), but is shaken out of his daydream by the inmate next to him, who hisses about all the women they can sleep with now that they are out of prison. Shadow thinks of Laura, but can’t cry.
Shadow hardly seems to react to the death of his wife. There is a certain amount of shock involved, but Shadow also seems extraordinarily able to just accept what life hands him with little complaint. His flash into an oubliette, a prison system that has never been used widely in America and passed out of fashion hundreds of years ago, introduces the idea that Shadow to some extent relives patterns from long ago times with influences from outside of America. His fellow inmate points to the idea that sex can be used as a tool and a distraction, rather than a real emotional connection.
As the bus gets closer to the city, Shadow thinks of an old cellmate named Johnnie Larch who was unable to board a flight because his driver’s license was expired and he had no other identification. Johnnie reacted to the situation as if his reputation had been challenged, threatening to fight all the airport security guards. Banned from the airport, Johnnie spent all his money on bars in town, and then got arrested again for holding up a gas station with a toy gun. Back inside prison, Johnnie tells everyone who will listen not to mess with airport employees, refusing to believe that the moral of this experience is: “kinds of behavior that work in a specialized environment, such as a prison, can fail to work and in fact become harmful when used outside such an environment” – as Shadow suggests.
Shadow’s explanation for Johnnie’s troubles, phrased in semi-scientific language and showing deep insight into human behavior, again shows that Shadow is far more intelligent and thoughtful than most people would expect from a man of his size, strength, and history with crime. Shadow’s looks deceive people, as they see in him whatever they want or expect to see. Shadow’s moral also suggests one of the main themes of the novel: the idea that people must adapt to change in order to survive – especially in America. Just as Johnnie had to change his behavior out of prison to better fit with his new surroundings, gods who come over from other countries must also retrain themselves to act in specific ways in the new (and constantly changing) American environment.
Shadow makes it to the airport, worrying that his e-ticket will not work today and further thinking that anything electronic seems fundamentally magical and hard to trust. All he has is a reservation number and a license that luckily has a few years left before expiration. The storm continues with thunder and lightning outside the airport as Shadow makes it to the airport counter and explains that he is traveling early because of a death in his family. The woman behind the counter expresses her sympathy and gives Shadow a boarding pass for a flight that afternoon.
Shadow shows an immediate distrust for anything electronic, distancing him from the current popularity of technology and tying him to more “traditional” or “outdated” methods of doing things. However, Shadow is able to modulate his behavior enough to fit in, pretending to be comfortable with the e-ticket and telling the woman at the counter a version of his situation that he knows will garner sympathy. Shadow does not lie, but he does create a more acceptable story by omitting details about his recent incarceration.
While Shadow waits for his flight, he calls Robbie and leaves a message, then calls Laura just to hear her voice on the answering machine. He has a crazy feeling that everything will actually be fine once he gets home, and imagines that Laura will meet him at the airport. He remembers the first time he saw Laura, out at a bar with Robbie where Laura had walked in with her friend Audrey Burton. Laura made Shadow order a strawberry daiquiri, and Shadow had been smitten from the first look at Laura’s blue eyes.
Laura looms large in Shadow’s mind, continuing to exert some control over his actions though she is dead. It seems as if Shadow doesn’t know what to do for himself now that he no longer has Laura to make plans for him. From their first meeting, Laura was the one who took initiative in their relationship, deciding even details like what drink Shadow should order. Without her, Shadow is somewhat lost.
Shadow boards his plane and quickly falls asleep. He dreams that he is in a cave “in the earth and under the earth” where a creature with a buffalo’s head and a man’s body tells Shadow that change is coming, decisions must be made, and Shadow must believe in order to survive. Shadow asks what to believe. The Buffalo Man roars, “Everything.” Shadow wakes to find that the plane is tipping and spinning in the storm. He wonders idly if he will die, then falls back asleep.
The location of Shadow’s dream is intimately tied to the earth, making the Buffalo Man clearly related to the land in some way. The Buffalo man reiterates the idea that American life means change, and introduces the importance of belief in the novel—his command to “believe everything” indeed becomes a sort of thesis statement for the book. Belief literally has the power to save Shadow (and the other godly characters) if he is able to open his mind enough to all the strange things that he will soon need to accept. For now, Shadow doesn’t seem to care whether he lives or dies, seeming remarkably indifferent to the storm.
The plane lands at an airport, where Shadow stumbles around before finding out that he is in St. Louis instead of Eagle Point, Indiana. After a lot of shuffling between help desks and gates, Shadow gets a flight connection to his proper destination and runs to the next gate where the plane is already prepping for take-off. Shadow is the last one on the plane and the only open seat is in first class. A well dressed, bearded man with a tie pin that looks like a silver tree (later revealed as Mr. Wednesday) tuts at Shadow that he is late. Shadow apologizes if he made the other man late, but the man replies that he was only concerned that Shadow would not make the flight.
Shadow’s experience at the airport is full of misdirection, as he’s told to go here and there with seemingly no logic. Yet in light of what we learn later, Mr. Wednesday is probably just manipulating the situation so that Shadow must end up on the plane with him. Wednesday’s concern about Shadow’s late arrival at first seems like kind-hearted care for another passenger, but it quickly becomes clear that Wednesday has plans for Shadow in particular. His tree tie pin also foreshadows the “world tree” later in the book, referencing Yggdrasil from Norse mythology.
The bearded man, sipping a glass of Jack Daniel’s despite the protests of the flight attendants, tells Shadow that he has a job for him. Shadow, confused as to how this man knows his name, refuses, and asks the man to stop speaking to him. After a few minutes, the man tells Shadow that he is sorry that his wife died, lamenting, “If it could have been but any other way.” Shadow struggles to keep his temper in check while the man tries again to get Shadow to agree to a job that could make him rich enough to be the next “king of America.”
Mr. Wednesday is a man who does what he wants, regardless of the rules or desires of other people. He also knows things about Shadow that he has no logical way of knowing, showing a predisposition for knowledge and wisdom that highlights his identity as the Norse God Odin. Mr. Wednesday also nods at an identity for Shadow that will become clearer as the novel progresses, joking about a “king of America.”
Shadow again refuses the job, but asks the bearded man’s name. The man chuckles about the currencies of information and knowledge, then says Shadow can call him Mr. Wednesday because “today certainly is my day.” Mr. Wednesday then promises to tell Shadow his real name if Shadow works for him long enough. Mr. Wednesday goes to sleep as the plane lands at the first airport on their flight path. Though it is not Eagle Point, Shadow gets off and rents a car to drive the last 250 miles home.
As the Norse God Odin, who is associated with granting wisdom, Mr. Wednesday sees knowledge as a form of power. His joke about today being “his” day refers to the origin of the word Wednesday, which comes from the phrase “Woden’s Day,” as Woden is the Germanic pronunciation of Odin. Though Wednesday has promised riches, knowledge and power, Shadow would rather have a normal life.
Shadow drives for a couple of hours, and then stops at a place called Jack’s Crocodile Bar for some food. The bar is thick with smoke and “Walkin’ after Midnight” plays on the jukebox. Shadow orders a burger and chili then goes to the restroom. In the bathroom, Mr. Wednesday suddenly appears at the urinal next to him. Shadow realizes that Mr. Wednesday is almost as tall as he is, an impressive height. Mr. Wednesday asks Shadow again about taking the job, grinning a foxlike smile with no warmth behind it.
The song “Walkin’ After Midnight” and its lyrics about searching for a lost love set the scene for Shadow to be upset about Laura’s death, no matter how little he shows it. Yet it also foreshadows that Shadow may be found by people late at night who are searching for him when he least expects it. Mr. Wednesday’s oddly cold smile, at a “crocodile bar” no less, shows that Mr. Wednesday is a false person who hides an agenda behind a “crocodile smile”—a smile that covers his malicious intentions.