As with most noir heroes, we meet Shadow, the protagonist of Neil Gaiman's hard-boiled fantasia, "American Gods," after he's lost everything. Fresh from doing three years in prison for a stupid crime, he learns that his beloved wife, Laura, is dead, killed in a car accident with his best friend, the guy who'd promised him a job when he got out. To make matters worse, he has a series of unsettling encounters with a persistent older gentleman in a pale suit. Each meeting seems to be the result of extravagantly improbable chance, and the gentleman, who offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard, just won't take no for an answer. "Who are you?" Shadow asks, and the older man replies, "Let's see. Well, seeing that today certainly is my day -- why don't you call me Wednesday?"
If you have a basic knowledge of mythology (or, for that matter, etymology, or, really, if you just have a good dictionary) and a vague idea of what "American Gods" is about, you can figure out this fellow's real identity pretty easily. Shadow, however, hasn't yet realized that he's stumbled into a kind of underground, a loosely connected network of burned-out, down-on-their-luck deities, the remnants of every god, godling or other supernatural being that any person who ever set foot in America has ever believed in. Their circumstances are, to say the least, reduced: Wednesday, who used to be a contender, ekes out a living by running cons on inattentive clerks and bank customers, and later in his adventures Shadow will meet a Mr. Ibis and a Mr. Jacquel, who run a shabby-genteel mortuary for "the colored folk hereabouts" -- "hereabouts" being Cairo, Ill.
Wednesday, who finally succeeds in hiring Shadow, is traveling across the country, enlisting his peculiar colleagues -- who include Czernobog, the dark half of a dualistic pair of Slavic brother gods, and Mr. Nancy, the human embodiment of a West African spider-trickster god -- in a titanic battle. Their opponents are the "new" gods: the Technical Boy, who says things like "[Wednesday] has been consigned to the dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow"; a bunch of men in black who call themselves "the Agency" but are referred to by everyone else as "the spookshow"; a "perfectly made-up, perfectly coiffed" newscaster goddess by the name of Media; and a never-seen contingent called the Intangibles, who join the conflict somewhat reluctantly because they are "pretty much in favor of letting market forces take care of it."
Shadow goes through some of the requisite hard-boiled experiences -- getting kidnapped and beat up by the bad guys, discovering that his employer hasn't been exactly honest with him and so on -- along with a few others that never crop up in Chandler and Hammett. A magical coin, given to him by a drunk claiming to be a leprechaun, a token that Shadow tosses into his wife's grave, has the unnerving result of reanimating her, and while she's unquestionably dead, she helps him out of a few scrapes. The characters in TV sitcoms drop their shtick and look out of the screen to address him directly, trying to talk him into joining the new gods. And then there are the weird dreams Shadow keeps having about a buffalo-headed figure who issues a series of cryptic pronouncements. But none of this is quite as creepy as Lakeside, the small Michigan town where he holes up for a while, a place that's just a little bit too good to be true.
With its mythological echoes, puns, in jokes and other decodable references, "American Gods" will delight the sort of reader who likes to hunt for such things. (Gaiman even jokes about this by including a bit about "hidden Indians," that is, the kind of visual puzzle in which disguised figures are worked into a drawing.) The novel also has a big theme about the nature of America, which, most of the characters insist, is "a bad land for gods," supposedly because we get tired of them and they dwindle from insufficient worship. This, it must be said, doesn't jibe with reality, and perhaps that's because Gaiman (who wrote the seminal graphic novel "The Sandman" and has authored several traditional novels, including the delightful "Neverwhere," which sets uncanny doings in the London Underground) is British. When Mr. Jacquel observes that "Jesus does pretty good over here," well, that's an understatement.
But the slightly off skew of its take on the U.S. doesn't really matter much, for "American Gods" is a crackerjack suspense yarn with an ending that both surprises and makes perfect sense, as well as many passages of heady, imagistic writing. And for all that he's missed in the American propensity for religious fanaticism, Gaiman has exactly nailed the way we talk; some of the most savory characters are the minor ones, the helpful middle-aged ladies and surly cons who regale Shadow for a moment or two before passing out of the story, like the fellow inmate who tells Shadow: "My last girlfriend was Greek ... The shit her family ate. You would not believe. Like rice wrapped in leaves. Shit like that."
Speaking of Greeks, their gods never make an appearance here, though their presence, you'd think, wouldn't be any less plausible than that of Anubis and Thoth. Even more mystifying is the absence of the guy Mr. Jacquel calls "one lucky son of a virgin." Somehow, the fact that we're twice told that Shadow is 32 at the very beginning of the novel -- as well as a few things that happen to him later on -- seems to be a reference to that conspicuous no-show, but now I'm pointing out hidden Indians. Whatever its loftier intentions, "American Gods" is a juicily original melding of archaic myth with the slangy, gritty, melancholy voice of one of America's great cultural inventions -- the hard-boiled detective; call it Wagnerian noir. The melting pot has produced stranger cocktails, but few that are as tasty.