Gavin Extence has written a superb young adult novel dealing with some rather mature themes: secular humanism, Kurt Vonnegut, growing cannabis, and death/end of life decisions. I think this may turn out to be my favorite novel of the summer.
Alex Woods, our narrator, is 17 when we start and all of the action of the story has happened. Alex is returning to England from Continental Europe with the ashes of his neighbor Isaac Peterson and a glove compartment full of marijuana. Alex is detained at customs and brought in for questioning. From this point, Alex tells the amazing story of his life and his friendship with the reclusive Mr. Peterson.
Alex is already famous by the time we are introduced. At the age of 10, he survived being hit by a meteorite, was in a coma for several weeks and then developed epilepsy, which caused him to miss school for most of a year. He is the only child of a single mother who runs her own shop and reads tarot cards for clients. Alex is drawn to math and sciences, particularly astrophysics and neurology. Unfortunately, bullies are drawn to Alex for these same reasons. Alex’s path and Mr. Peterson’s cross as a result of a bullying incident. Peterson is an American veteran of the Vietnam War who writes a lot of letters for Amnesty International and whose favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut. Over time, a strange but beautiful friendship develops between the two. Alex matures, learns to manage his epilepsy, and actively pursues his interests as well as action that seems right to him. I found him to be a thoroughly interesting and admirable character, although I suspect that those who are more politically conservative might find him to be immoral or, at the very least, misguided.
An overarching theme is about us and the universe — is there a God? Where do we fit in? Can we know the universe? I like that the title is The Universe Versus Alex Woods and not the other way around — that it’s not Alex who is trying to mess with the universe, but rather the universe seems to have taken on Alex. Throwing a meteorite at his head is only one example. He and his mother have no idea who his father is; he is a target for bullies; he has epilepsy. Yet for the most part, Alex faces it all in a calm, rational way. The one exception, when he calls a bully an especially offensive word in front of the headmaster, makes him feel powerful in the short run but is regretted in the long run. Alex is patient and a planner, and this serves him well (although it makes him seem odd and is sometimes frustrating to those close to him).
I think what I find most impressive about the novel is that while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the same view of life and the universe as Alex, I understand why he thinks as he does. I can’t help but like him. Gavin Extence does a marvelous job of presenting Alex’s point of view in a reasonable and convincing manner. The writing is humorous and intelligent, and would appeal to the high school crowd. Mature themes and some crude language might make it inappropriate for those younger.