Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Starstruck: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavon Extence

If anyone could be said to be born under a bad star, it would be Alex Woods.

Conceived in a Solstice-celebration one-night stand by an unknown father and a hippy-ish Wiccan mother, whose shop offers a mashup of supernatural supplies and Tarot readings to the village's strangest residents, Alex is already doomed to be the odd kid out. And when he becomes only the second human to have been struck by a meteor and suffers the onset of epilepsy at the age of ten, he's doomed to be prime bully-bait at school.

The moment I'm about to describe is the culmination of one set of chaotic circumstances and the starting point for another. It's a moment that makes me think about how life can seem highly ordered and highly chaotic all at the same time. It's an ending and a new beginning.

It was three days after the day Kurt Vonnegut died, but I didn't know that at the time.

I was only going to the village shop and back, and I thought I'd probably be okay. As it turned out I was wrong.

"Nice bag, Woods!"

It was Decker Mackenzie. He was sitting on the wall of the churchyard and drinking a can of Red Bull. He was flanked, as always by Studwin and Asbo. Studwin was holding a thick branch and was poking around in the dirt like some kind of Neanderthal who'd just discovered his opposable thumbs. Asbo was rolling a cigarette. Asbo was always rolling a cigarette. No single twelve-year-old could have smoked as many cigarettes as Asbo managed to roll. There weren't enough unsupervised hours in the day.
I'd walked right into their territory without noticing them.

Alex chooses to run from Mackenzie and his henchmen, cutting through the woods beside the road and hiding in a garden shed behind an isolated house, barricading the door with sacks of mulch. When the three bullies discover that they can't break into the shed, they satisfy their destructive urges by breaking the windows and fleeing before the owner appears.  Alex is ashamed of his cowardice, but sticks to the schoolboy code not to rat on other boys and takes the rap for the broken windows.

The shed's owner is Isaac Peterson, an ex-pat, marijuana-smoking, Vietnam veteran, the village recluse and reputed curmudgeon, but Alex's mother forces Alex to apologize and do penance by working off the cost of repairs. And although their introduction is rocky, Alex and Mr. Peterson find themselves kindred spirits and an unlikely friendship begins.

Peterson introduces Alex to his own iconoclastic world view and to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut and Mozart, and over the next few years Peterson becomes both Alex's best friend and a sort of father figure who helps him find a way to be comfortable in his own meteoroid-marked skin.

At sixteen, Alex is moved by a chance notice in the local library to start a reading group, which comes to include Alex's neurologist, two of the town librarians, and a group of like-minded residents. Alex even manages to persuade the anti-social Peterson to moderate the group, titled the Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut.

But then Peterson is diagnosed with a rapidly progressing neurological disease which soon begins to rob him of the ability to read, speak, and get about to manage his solitary life.  Fearing  total helplessness, dying incommunicado in pain, with no power to control his death, Peterson attempts a clumsy suicide with a witch's brew of cached drugs. Alex finds him and manages to avert his death for the time, but as Peterson loses speech and muscular control, both of them realize that Peterson's time to die with any dignity is growing short. Peterson knows what he needs to do, but Alex only knows that he has a life-changing decision to make.

How Alex Woods finds himself driving through France toward the Channel, with a shrinking supply of Diet Coke and  a remnant of a homegrown marijuana stash in the trunk, and an urn of ashes belted in the passenger seat is the subject of  Gavin Extence's much-lauded The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Redhook, 2013), a best-selling first novel, an off-beat coming-of-age work that takes on all big questions that adolescents come to perceive--order and chaos, the meaning of time, good and evil, life and death, the nature of friendship, and the limits of personal responsibility, in an riveting work which has appeal to a wide range of readers. Alex's is a unique voice which dares to speak all the questions, and offer some of the his own answers, to the ultimate issues of life.

"Perfectly crafted and beautifully written... The Universe Versus Alex Woods may be a debut novel but it is an outstanding novel by any standards. Unforgettable," says one British reviewer. Publishers Weekly gives it a rare starred review, Amazon makes it the July young-adult book of the month, and Library Journal adds, "A bittersweet, cross-audience charmer, this debut novel will appeal to guys, YA readers, and Vonnegut and coming-of-age fiction fans."

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