Somewhere in America. Los Angeles. 11:26 P.M.
American Gods Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis
The chapter opens with a quote from an “old song” in which a woman is taken to a cemetery in a Cadillac. Back in Jack’s Crocodile Bar, Mr. Wednesday continues to persuade Shadow to take a job with him. When Shadow protests that he already has a job, Mr. Wednesday flippantly says that Robbie Burton is dead. Shadow accuses Mr. Wednesday of lying, but Mr. Wednesday produces a newspaper to support his story. Shadow decides to eat his chili and burger first, fondly remembering the chili that Laura used to make, then reads the article that details the early morning car crash that killed both Laura and Robbie. Shadow can’t help but picture a possible reason for the crash, imagining Robbie driving drunk as Laura shouts at him to pull over.
Mr. Wednesday seems very unconcerned with giving Shadow the news that his entire world has crumbled, another example of how gods seem to have little compassion for humans. Shadow remains entirely loyal to Laura, both nostalgically thinking of her cooking and casting her in the best light he can, given the facts of the car crash with Robbie. Shadow assumes that it was Robbie’s fault, blaming him for the accident though he actually has no idea what happened aside from the fact that it was very late at night. Shadow is so trusting of Laura that he doesn’t even stop to think that this would be an odd time for Laura to be alone with another man.
Shadow sighs, realizing he really doesn’t have a job, and then pulls out a coin. He asks Mr. Wednesday to call the coin toss to decide if Shadow will take the job or not. Mr. Wednesday calls heads, and Shadow reveals without looking at the coin that he rigged the toss to make the coin come up tails. Mr. Wednesday laughs and tells Shadow to check. The coin is heads. Shadow thinks he must have fumbled when he tried to rig the toss.
Shadow is very adept at coin tricks, having little to do but practice for hours while in jail. Mr. Wednesday has actually magically changed the coin, but Shadow would rather believe that he messed up than admit that there is anything supernatural going on. Again Shadow expresses a desire for normalcy.
Mr. Wednesday then welcomes Mad Sweeney, a tall man with ginger hair, to their table, and then goes to the bar to get the newcomer a Southern Comfort and Coke. Mad Sweeney opens a pack of Lucky Strikes and asks if Shadow works for Mr. Wednesday, to which Shadow sighs that he does. Mad Sweeney then claims that he is a leprechaun, making Shadow question why Mad Sweeney doesn’t have an Irish accent and isn’t drinking Guinness. As Mad Sweeney tells Shadow not to trust stereotypes, Mr. Wednesday returns with their drinks.
Mad Sweeney’s description as the complete opposite of the stereotypical leprechaun is another example of Gaiman dispelling “fakelore” in American Gods. The popular image of leprechauns is actually based on derogatory assumptions about the Irish spread when the Irish came to America in the 19th century. Gaiman does nod to some of the roots of the leprechaun myths, though, associating Mad Sweeney with luck through his choice of cigarette.
Mr. Wednesday brings Shadow a golden drink that tastes oddly sour and sweet, reminding Shadow of the beer inmates tried to brew for themselves in prison. Mr. Wednesday explains that it is mead, the drink of heroes and gods. Wednesday agrees that it tastes awful, then stares at Shadow straight in the eyes and tells Shadow that they have to seal their bargain in the most traditional way possible. Noticing that Wednesday seems to have one glass eye, Shadow listens as Wednesday lays out what Shadow is promising to do by working for him – mostly doing whatever Wednesday says. The last task includes holding Wednesday’s vigil in the unlikely event of his death.
Mr. Wednesday brings Shadow mead, pointing to the fact that Shadow will eventually be revealed as both a hero and a demi-god. Mr. Wednesday’s insistence on the traditional highlights the ways that the Old Gods (including Wednesday, as Odin) cling tightly to their previous ways despite the fact that these practices no longer make sense in modern America. Yet Shadow passively goes along with Wednesday’s plans because it is easier than choosing for himself what to do. Shadow doesn’t even question the strange condition about the “vigil,” instead simply accepting all of Wednesday’s terms.
Mad Sweeney warns Shadow that Wednesday is a hustler, and then the bar falls silent. Shadow comments that these strange lulls in conversation only happen at 20 past or 20 to the hour. Checking the clock, Shadow sees that it is indeed 11:20. Shadow drinks the rest of his mead in one gulp and Wednesday orders him another one. Shadow explains the conditions of his employment: he wants time to go to Laura’s funeral, he won’t hurt people for fun or for profit, he wants $500 a week, and he won’t go back to prison. Wednesday smiles his strange, threatening smile, and agrees that they have a deal. Wednesday spits in his hand and holds it out to shake. Shadow does the same, then agrees to have one last glass of mead to seal the deal.
The urban legend that groups of people fall silent at 20 past or to the hour comes from a bit of folklore surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This organically American superstition suggests that because Lincoln died at 7:20, people now fall silent in reverence due to some supernatural influence. Shadow wants surprisingly little in return for giving Wednesday almost complete control over his life, again trying just to stay out of trouble rather than negotiating for money or power. This last glass of mead brings the total up to three, an important number in Norse mythology and signifying the creation of an unbreakable contract between Shadow and Wednesday.
Mad Sweeney puts “Who Loves the Sun” on the jukebox, and then notices that Shadow is doing coin tricks. Mad Sweeney does his own coin trick, reaching into the air and producing a large gold coin, then filling his glass with gold coins plucked from all over the table, tipping all the coins into his pocket, and making them disappear. Shadow tries to figure out how Mad Sweeney did it, but Mad Sweeney says only that he picks them out of the air. Shadow backs down and drinks his final glass of mead as Mad Sweeney toasts to their health instead of paying for his drink.
Mad Sweeney’s song choice again clarifies Shadow’s emotional state, as it talks about a man who is unable to appreciate even the sun when his love is gone. Yet the song also points to the origin of Sweeney’s gold coins, which are later revealed to come from the treasure of the sun itself. For now, the coins simply seem like another aspect of Mad Sweeney’s identity as a leprechaun, which are usually said to have a hidden pot of gold.
Mad Sweeney brings his coin trick back up, offering to fight Shadow for the secret. Shadow refuses, seeing that Mad Sweeney is clearly drunk, but Mad Sweeney continues to goad both Shadow and Wednesday, saying that Wednesday has hired a coward. Wednesday tells Shadow to deal with the problem and Shadow asks Mad Sweeney to leave. Mad Sweeney punches Shadow in the face, and Shadow knows that he can’t back down now. Having learned in prison that some fights were for show and that some fights were actually meant to hurt, Shadow asks Sweeney why they are fighting. Sweeney answers that they are fighting for the joy of it. Shadow knocks Sweeney down twice before Sweeney agrees that they are done and falls asleep on the bar floor.
Mad Sweeney comes across as the worst stereotypes of Irishmen here, both getting drunk and picking a fight for no reason, somewhat undercutting his earlier desire not to be stuck with people’s assumptions. The distinction Shadow makes between showy fights and real fights is important later as Wednesday unfurls his plan to misdirect attention through a big showy fight so that he can hide his true intention of gaining power for himself. Shadow’s fight with Sweeney is clearly only for show, as Sweeney can’t even stay mad enough to keep from falling asleep.
Shadow wakes up in the back of Wednesday’s car with a spectacular hangover. He wonders aloud what happened to his own rental car, but Wednesday assures Shadow that he made a deal with Mad Sweeney that Mad Sweeney would take the car back. Shadow has no memory of making a deal, and the entire night in the bar feels fuzzy and blurred in a mead-induced haze. Shadow finds a large gold coin in his pocket and plays with it while Wednesday drives, slowly remembering that Mad Sweeney showed him how to make the coin appear, but unable to remember exactly how.
Mad Sweeney was true to his word, as he had originally promised to give Shadow the secret to his coin trick if Shadow fought him (though Shadow now doesn’t remember stealing the coin himself). Shadow does not yet know that this coin is far more special than the coins that Mad Sweeney was producing, but his faulty memory covers up the details of the night. That Wednesday’s mead caused Shadow such trouble is further proof that Wednesday might not have Shadow’s best interests at heart.
Wednesday stops at a gas station to let Shadow clean up his injuries from fighting Mad Sweeney. Shadow wonders what Laura will say when she sees his black eye, then remembers that Laura is gone. Wednesday shuffles through a transaction at the gas station register, forcing the girl behind the counter to try and then cancel three different cards and give him back his cash twice, appearing like an old man confused by the vagaries of credit cards versus cash. It is only once they are back on the road that Shadow realizes that Wednesday managed not to pay for his gas at all.
Shadow seems to care more about Laura’s reaction to his injuries than the injuries themselves. Wednesday reveals his first con of the novel, showcasing his “profession” as a grifter who lies to others in order to live off of their money. Shadow does not necessarily object, but he does seem uncomfortable with Wednesday’s lifestyle.
Wednesday drives towards Eagle Point, heading for the funeral parlor where Laura’s memorial will be held. Shadow looks at the town that used to be his home, as they pull up to the House of Rest. Shadow goes in alone while Wednesday goes to get them rooms at the Motel America. Shadow manipulates his heavy gold coin as he walks into the dim funeral hall and to the room where Laura’s casket is being displayed. All of Laura’s friends and family are congregated in the room, but none greet Shadow.
Laura may have been the most important thing in Shadow’s life, but the reaction of Laura’s friends and family suggests that Shadow was not exactly a welcome addition to Laura’s. They treat him as an ex-con, unable or unwilling to see the depths underneath. Shadow masks his discomfort at the funeral by playing with his coin, unwittingly using a symbol of life to counteract his sorrow at Laura’s death.
Shadow writes his name in the remembrance book, following his signature with the date and “Puppy” in parentheses. He musters the courage to approach Laura’s body as a small woman dressed in black comes in. Shadow recognizes Audrey Burton, Robbie’s widow and Laura’s best friend. Audrey walks to Laura’s casket and Shadow follows her. Laura looks strange in death, still in a way that she never was in life. Audrey places a sprig of violets on Laura’s chest, then spits in Laura’s face.
Shadow identifies himself as Laura’s “puppy,” clearly more comfortable being her “pet” than making life decisions for himself. In contrast, Audrey has a much more complicated relationship with her recently deceased friend. While Shadow memorializes and idolizes Laura, numbing his feelings rather than going to the effort of processing them, Audrey is more willing to fully give in to both her sorrow and her rage at Laura.
Audrey starts walking out the door and Shadow follows her again. Shadow asks why Audrey spit on Laura, which Audrey deliberately misunderstands as a question about the violets, a flower that Audrey and Laura picked together as girls. Shadow asks again, an Audrey calmly explains that Laura and Robbie were having an affair and that Laura died while giving Robbie a blow job in the car. Audrey walks away and Shadow returns to the funeral parlor.
Audrey does obviously love her friend, giving homage to their long history with the violets. Yet Audrey is also better able to separate her sadness at Laura’s death from her anger at how Laura died. Unlike the drunk driving scenario that Shadow had imagined, it seems that it was Laura’s fault that they both died—adding to the news that Laura was cheating on Shadow with Robbie and lying to him for years.
Shadow rides with Laura’s mother, Mrs. McCabe, in the hearse to the graveyard. Mrs. McCabe dislikes Shadow and sniffs at his black eye. Shadow simply answers “Yes” when Mrs. McCabe asks if he has been fighting. At the graveyard, there is a short service and Laura is lowered into the ground. Shadow throws his gold coin in with the dirt, says, “I’m sorry,” and then starts to walk back into town.
Though Shadow could have made excuses to Mrs. McCabe, he chooses to tell the truth even when it makes him look bad. He shows an early preference for honesty, as well as a desire to forgive Laura rather than hold a grudge—in general he just seems to not really care what happens to him anymore. He gives up his gold coin freely, making this present highly significant, though he is unaware of the coin’s meaning right now.
As Shadow walks to the Motel America, Audrey pulls up and offers him a ride. Shadow refuses, even though it’s snowing. Audrey follows him, creeping along in her car and grumbling about Laura’s betrayal. Shadow refuses to take her bait, saying that he will always love Laura more than he hates her. Audrey angrily stomps on the gas pedal and drives away. Shadow keeps walking, thinking about Low Key calling a graveyard a “Bone Orchard,” and a dream Shadow once had about an orchard made out of skeletal trees. Shadow trips in the dark, falling in the mud. As he gets up, he is grabbed from behind and a wet rag smelling of chemicals is forced over his mouth.
Audrey seems to desperately want someone to validate her anger at Laura, though there is a taboo against speaking ill of the dead. Shadow stays loyal to his late wife, though he is not blindly saying that he still loves her but intelligently choosing to look past his hurt to focus on the bond that he and Laura once shared. The imagery of the “bone orchard” presents graveyards as places where things can actually grow, blurring the lines between death and life in the novel and foreshadowing the fact that death is not an end.
Shadow wakes up with his hands tied behind his back and a raging headache in the back of a limousine. A fat young man (later revealed as Technical Boy) sits across the aisle and two men sit beside Shadow. Shadow asks to be dropped off at the Motel America, and the young man orders one of the other men to hit Shadow, warning him, “Don’t fuck with me.” The young man then asks about Wednesday’s game plan, but Shadow has no answer. The young man takes out a hand-rolled cigarette and lights it, filling the car with the smell of burning electrical parts. Shadow watches the young man smoke as the limo’s lights glint off his neon green eyes.
Though Shadow’s first meeting with Wednesday was also unpleasant, Shadow is already loyal to his new employer in the face of another disturbing individual who seems to know far too much about Shadow. While Wednesday can easily pass for human, technical Boy is more obviously something else, given his strange green eyes and stilted way of talking. Technical Boy acts as if he is always quoting someone else, showing that New Gods like him are more derivative and have little originality when compared to the Old Gods.
The young man (Technical Boy) tells Shadow to tell Mr. Wednesday that Mr. Wednesday is in the “Dumpster of History” while people like him “have reprogrammed reality.” Shadow agrees to do this, and then asks to be let out. The young man stops the limo, giving Shadow one last threat that they will “delete” him, then comments that his cigarette is made of synthetic toad skins with synthesized bufotenin (a hallucinogen). The people next to Shadow cut the ties on his hands as Shadow clambers out of the car. The young man calls out an apology about Shadow’s wife, and then Shadow walks back to the Motel America without further problem.
Technical Boy is the first sign that there is a conflict currently going on between the Old Gods and the New Gods based on who can adapt best to the future of America. Bufotenin is a chemical found in poisonous frogs, traditionally used by some tribal shamans in Amazonian cultures to trigger godly visions and prophecies. Thus, Technical Boy is again borrowing old traditions and wrapping them in new packaging, even as he claims to represent the new face of America that is rejecting all the old ways. Technical Boy may think he has “reprogrammed reality,” (another nod to his affinity for computers) but he actually has no control over the future or whether humans continue to believe in him.
Somewhere in America. Los Angeles. 11:26 P.M.
Somewhere in America. Los Angeles. 11:26 P.M.