The chapter starts with Greg Brown’s song, “In the Dark with You.” Shadow, Mr. Nancy, and Czernobog reach Minneapolis and meet up with some of the other Old Gods. Alviss, the barrel-chested god, promises to avenge the all-father’s death. Mr. Nancy, Czernobog, and Shadow keep going in Alviss’s 1970 VW bus, driving south into Kentucky. Shadow is amazed to see that spring has already arrived in this region and he becomes painfully aware that time is an illusion. Czernobog wakes in the backseat and describes a strange dream in which he was also Bielebog, both the god of darkness and the god of light. He lights another cigarette, and when Shadow mentions lung cancer he scoffs that gods are hard to kill.
The Greg Brown excerpt suggests that the gods are now “in the dark” of despair after Wednesday’s death, but they are also “in the dark” about Wednesday’s entire plot. Alviss, the King of the Dwarves in Norse Mythology, shows how Odin’s death galvanizes many of the gods who were previously unwilling to enter the fight. Wednesday had to sacrifice himself so that the battle would be fought at all. Czernobog’s dream foreshadows the idea that Czernobog and Bielebog really are the same person, coming out at different times – especially significant next to a mention of spring, as the change of the season controls Czernobog/Bielebog’s aspect. Czernobog’s mention that gods are hard to kill hints that Wednesday might not actually be completely dead.
Shadow, Mr. Nancy, and Czernobog stop at a restaurant for lunch. The waitress comes to their table saying that there is a call at their payphone for Mr. Nancy. Mr. Nancy comes back to the table, saying that the New Gods have offered to hand over Wednesday’s body at a neutral location. Czernobog thinks it’s a trick, until he hears that the New Gods want to meet in the “center.”
Gaiman includes another scene at a diner, highlighting another quintessential but often overlooked American tradition. Czernobog is right to think that the New Gods may try to trick them again, but the center apparently is truly a neutral location – enough to pacify even Czernobog.
The exact center of anything is hard to find, but people attempted in the early 1900s to find the exact center of the continental United States. They came up with a spot outside of Lebanon, Kansas. As the precise location is in the middle of a privately owned hog farm, a monument is built two miles north of Lebanon. Nobody comes to this tourist attraction, but a dreary park remains. Mr. Nancy explains that the exact location of the center doesn’t matter, as long as people decide to believe that this sad park is the center of America.
Finding the geographical center of the United States seems to be a misplaced desire to find the “soul” of America, as Wednesday had previously mused. Instead of unifying Americans, this small park in the middle of nowhere actually scatters them more by creating a place where no one wants to go, instead of a place where everyone wants to gather. Gaiman shows that finding the center of America is a fruitless effort, as America’s identity and “soul” are ever-shifting.
Back on the road, Mr. Nancy drives and Shadow tries to sleep, but can’t ignore the bad feeling in his stomach. They keep driving, back north to Kansas where it is still winter. Czernobog forces them to stop in a meadow outside Cherryvale, Kansas, where mortals once sacrificed people to him and buried the bodies. Happily refreshed by this memory of blood, Czernobog reminds Shadow that he will get to kill him with a hammer when this is all over. Shadow changes the subject, asking why they can trust the New Gods to hold a truce this time when they already killed Wednesday. Nancy answers that the center of America is so “negatively sacred” that no god can have any power there.
Czernobog is sustained by blood sacrifices, a steep price for a god to ask, especially in modern times when violence of the sort that Czernobog enjoys is seen as barbaric. Czernobog is able to revive himself on the fumes of past sacrifices, explaining that the memory of blood is one of the strongest forces. Again, sacrifice is extremely powerful, but does no good when it is given for the wrong reasons. Shadow seems to be two steps behind Mr. Nancy and Czernobog, who have already thought through the relative merits of going to the center. It seems that the center of America is fundamentally unfriendly to gods, as something about the nature of American land is resistant to the gods’ power. This is the only place where all the gods can be neutral, but it is nonetheless a risky place.
Shadow parks the VW bus outside the motel next to the park at the center of America, noticing sadly a large black car with a chauffeur—which means that the New Gods are already there. A perfectly polished young woman comes out of the motel and greets them, introducing herself as Media. She explains that Wednesday’s body is in the fifth room of the hotel, and that Shadow and his friends can make themselves comfortable in any of the other rooms until it is time for the handoff. Shadow goes into room 9 and tries to sleep.
In contrast to the New Gods’ sleek car, the Old Gods’ VW bus looks pathetic and out of touch, another sign that the Old Gods are hopelessly outmatched. Wednesday’s place in the 5th room is significant, as it is the exact center of the hotel, next to the center of America. Meanwhile, Shadow is in room 9, a number significant to Odin—it’s the number of days he hung on the tree, as well as the number of runes he learned, acting as a subtle reminder that Shadow promised to sit Wednesday’s vigil.
Shadow dreams that he is walking through a snowstorm with a grey wolf by his side. He comes to a grove of trees with a bonfire burning in the center. A man who sounds like Wednesday welcomes Shadow to Sweden 1,000 years ago, explaining that this is the place where people would hang nine different animals for nine days. One animal was always a man, sacrificed to Odin. Shadow looks at the trees in the grove, noticing animal shapes hanging from the branches. The Swedish Wednesday explains that, for gods, death doesn’t matter – only the opportunity for resurrection.
The grey wolf is most likely representative of Geri or Feri, one of Odin’s wolves. Shadow’s dream includes an older incarnation of Odin, one who has not been driven so mad by lack of power. He gives Shadow the basics of Odin’s vigil. As the gallows god, this incarnation of Odin demanded incredible sacrifice from his people (and there is indeed evidence of human sacrifices to Odin in ancient Sweden). The Swedish Odin makes it clear that Wednesday could be revived if enough blood were spilt in his name.
Passing by the bodies of dead men in the trees, Shadow asks what his part is in all this, and Swedish Wednesday tells Shadow that he is a diversion, the thing that made it possible for Wednesday to pull off this trick. The fire burns brighter and Shadow sees that it is built on bones rather than wood. Swedish Wednesday says, “Three days on the tree, three days in the underworld, three days to find my way back.” The Shadow’s dream goes dark.
After all Shadow’s talk about being bad at misdirection, it turns out that he is the distraction. Wednesday needed someone else to make him look credible, as all his cons are two-person affairs. The nine days on the tree are separated into three sets of three days, recalling the significance of threes in the Norse creation myth.
Media knocks on Shadow’s door and invites Shadow to dinner. The New Gods’ chauffeur passes out burgers and fries from McDonald’s and Shadow asks what time the handoff of Wednesday’s body will take place. Both Mr. Nancy and Technical Boy answer “Midnight.” Shadow grumbles that no one ever tells him the rules to all this. As the Old and New Gods snipe at each other, Shadow decides to go see the center of America. Mr. Nancy follows.
The New Gods obviously love fast food, as a new trend in America. Both the New Gods and the Old Gods agree on the rules of the ritual for handing over the body, showing that there are some things that all the gods agree on, even if they claim to be complete opposites. Shadow has to learn all these rules as the human “ambassador” to the gods.
Mr. Nancy lights a cigarillo and sighs that it is bad to have this many gods in one place, no matter who’s side they’re on. But with Wednesday dead, no one can give up the fight now. Mr. Nancy goes back inside and Shadow goes closer to the monument marking the center of America. He hears a click behind him and turns to see Mr. Town holding a gun. Mr. Town says that he won’t shoot Shadow, as they’ll all soon be dead anyway, but tells Shadow that he should be back in prison. Shadow reminds Mr. Town that the only person to whom Jesus personally promised a place in heaven was the convicted thief who died on a cross next to Jesus.
Mr. Nancy sees gods as fundamentally jealous, unable to share worship or space without hurting one another as they all compete for the same resource of human belief. Yet Wednesday’s death has become such a defining moment that the Old Gods continue their fight for the sake of their pride. As the god of civilization, Mr. Town naturally hates the disorder that an escaped convict like Shadow creates. Shadow gives one of the few references to Jesus and Christianity in the novel—in a story of redemption. Like the thief, Shadow can prove to be a hero despite his background.
Shadow goes back to the motel and finds Media in his room. She offers to make Shadow famous beyond his wildest dreams if he joins their side, and then threatens to make him infamous when Shadow refuses again. Shadow makes Media leave and lies on his bed thinking of Laura, trying to recall good memories but unable to get the thought of Laura and Robbie out of his mind. Technical Boy knocks on Shadow’s door, complaining about the lack of technology in this motel and practically shaking with withdrawal pangs. Shadow tells Technical Boy to go rest and locks his door. Through the wall, Shadow can hear Technical Boy banging his head on the wall.
The New Gods again use any methods they can to convince Shadow to join them, though Shadow is not swayed by their tricks and empty promises. Their very insistence on recruiting Shadow shows that they are not as secure in their position as they seem, just as Technical Boy’s breakdown while away from technology shows that the New Gods can be as easily stripped of their power as the Old Gods were.
Shadow walks out of his room and runs into the New Gods’ chauffeur in the motel parking lot. Shadow recognizes him, realizing that it is his old cellmate Low Key. Suddenly, saying Low Key’s name out loud makes Shadow realize that his name is actually “Loki Lie-smith.” Shadow and Loki go back to Shadow’s room, where Loki admits that he lied to Shadow but says that Shadow needed help his first year in prison. Shadow asks why Loki is driving for the New Gods, as he should be particularly loyal to Wednesday as another member of the Norse pantheon. Loki responds that he and Wednesday were never friends. Shadow reminds Loki that the Old Gods are more organized and unified now that they can avenge Wednesday’s death, but Loki just shrugs.
Low Key, having disappeared at the beginning of the novel, now reappears to reveal one of the biggest surprises of the book. Despite living together for three years, Loki was never honest with Shadow, and Shadow never realized that his cell mate was actually a god. Loki’s comment that Shadow “needed help” suggests that the gods have been manipulating Shadow’s life for far longer that he suspected. And given Loki and Odin’s history—legend tells of Odin throwing Loki out of Asgard, the home of the Norse gods—it’s not entirely surprising that a trickster god like Loki would choose to betray his kind and fight for the other side.
At five minutes to midnight, Loki tells Shadow it is time to go to Wednesday’s room and light candles. In Room 5, Wednesday is lying peacefully on top of the bed, though his face still shows the violence of his death. The other gods come in, arranging themselves around the body and bringing a religious atmosphere into the room that Shadow has never felt before.
Gaiman describes this scene with mythic language, making this part of Shadow’s journey seem like an old legends. Though the gods are in an abandoned hotel, it has the atmosphere of a church, again highlighting the idea that the truly divine places in America are not the organized houses of worship, but the places where people feel the call of belief.
The time comes to say some words over the body and Technical Boy deliriously cites the opening lines of Yeats’ “Second Coming,” ending at “the center cannot hold.” Czernobog and Mr. Nancy speak of the Old Gods’ obligation to give blood for blood, making Mr. Town scoff that the Old Gods have no chance. Czernobog curses Mr. Town with a coward’s death while Media attempts to persuade everyone to think of the happiness of birth during this time of sadness and death. At midnight, the New Gods turn to leave on Loki’s signal, with Technical Boy murmuring “call no man happy” to Shadow as he goes.
Yeats’ line “the Center cannot hold,” a reference to an unspooling of reality at the apocalypse, suggests that the center of America cannot maintain itself with the number of gods gathered here – something will have to give way. Czernobog again brings up the necessity of sacrifice, as there is a price for every action. But the New Gods focus on meaningless platitudes that connect death and life in one balance. Meanwhile, Technical Boy seems to have gone crazy, but manages to remind Shadow of the Herodotus quote from the beginning of the novel, while leaving out the part that makes this quote purposeful. As Technical Boy says it, no one can ever be happy. Oddly, the New Gods seem to be following Loki’s orders, though Loki claimed to be just their chauffeur.
The Old Gods wrap up Wednesday’s body in the sheets and Shadow picks him up. As Shadow walks down the corridor, he remembers his pledge to sit Wednesday’s vigil if Wednesday died. Shadow places Wednesday in the back of the VW bus. As he turns, Mr. Town gives Shadow Wednesday’s glass eye. The new and the Old Gods pack up and leave the motel at the center of America.
Gaiman has already shown that Shadow keeps his promises, unlike the gods. By taking Wednesday’s eye, Shadow commits to following the same path that Odin took, hanging on the tree as a sacrifice to earn wisdom.
By dawn, Shadow, Mr. Nancy, and Czernobog have reached Princeton, Missouri with Wednesday’s body. Mr. Nancy advises Shadow to run to Mexico or Canada, but Shadow decides to stay with Wednesday. Mr. Nancy explains that they have to take the body to a “world tree” in Virginia, where someone must sit vigil for Wednesday in order to fulfill the old traditions while the New and Old Gods battle Backstage. Shadow offers to sit the vigil, but Mr. Nancy protests that the vigil would kill Shadow – he would have to hang on the world tree for nine days and nights without food and water. Shadow is adamant that he has to do it, because it is the “kind of thing a living person would do.”
As Shadow drank Wednesday’s mead and pledged to hold his vigil, Shadow now has to honor that promise by the rules of the Norse gods. Yet even if Shadow had not done so, it would still be traditional, according to the old legends about Odin, for someone to hang for Odin after he died. These rules are the pattern of mythology that makes stories retain their meaning in all the times and places they are retold. Shadow knows that Odin’s vigil may kill him, but he has decided that keeping his promise and finally making a bold choice are worth it. A living person would feel strongly enough about something to die for it, and Shadow wants to prove (mostly to himself, but also to Laura) that he is truly alive.
As Mr. Nancy keeps driving, Shadow is filled with pride that he has finally made a decision. He hopes he lives through the vigil, now that he knows what it is like to be alive. He wonders about the big picture in all of this, but can’t quite grasp it. Once in Virginia, Mr. Nancy finally makes it to the world tree after getting lost multiple times on the unmarked farm roads. Shadow gets out and stretches his legs, having lost all sense of time while they were driving.
Significantly, Shadow is not agreeing to potentially die for Wednesday because he doesn’t care about his life—rather it’s because he finally does care. His sacrifice to Odin is thus more meaningful, as Shadow really does have something to live for. Yet Shadow still doesn’t see how his sacrifice will fit into Wednesday’s larger plan. Unlike most of the locations in the novel, the farm where the world tree stands is not an identifiable place in America.
Wednesday’s body is still fresh in the back of the bus. Shadow manipulates Wednesday’s glass eye as he would a coin, looking at the abandoned farm house next to the World Tree. The tree itself is taller than the farmhouse and looks exactly like Wednesday’s tie pin. Three women (The Norns) are standing by the tree, reminding Shadow of the Zorya sisters. The biggest woman takes Wednesday’s body out of the back of the bus, and then all three sisters ask if Shadow will perform the vigil. Mr. Nancy again gives Shadow a chance to back out, but Shadow accepts the vigil.
In Norse mythology, the World Tree (also called Yggdrasil) is a magical ash tree that connects all the world, both the mortal and godly realms of the nine worlds that make up the Norse cosmology. The Norns are the women who protect the tree, in some legends standing for the past, present, and future, and in others simply acting as guardians over the powerful forces housed in the well at the tree’s base (but also roughly corresponding to the Fates of Greek mythology). At the tree, Shadow is adamantly making his own choices, even going against what other people tell him to do for the first time in the novel.
The biggest sister pantomimes to Shadow to take off his clothes, and the Norns prop a nine-stepped ladder against the tree. Shadow climbs the ladder and the sisters begin to tie Shadow’s entire body to the tree trunk with thin ropes. Shadow is amazed at how evenly the ropes hold his weight, such that even the rope around his neck doesn’t hurt. The sisters take the ladder away, leaving Shadow hanging from the tree with Wednesday at his feet. The sisters leave, and Shadow is alone.
Shadow’s nakedness makes him more vulnerable, showing that he is baring his entire being during this sacrifice. Rather than hanging Shadow by his neck, ensuring certain death, the Norns tie Shadow carefully so that he has a chance of surviving this experience. In order to properly perform the vigil, Shadow has to be willing to die, but he does not actually have to perish.