Gavin Extence’s debut novel (and the second for the Redhook publishing group) is a stunning bildungsroman about the extraordinary life of one Alex Woods. Unlucky in life by conventional standards, Alex is extremely lucky to have his growing pains documented by Extence. Alex gets struck in the head by a meteorite and survives, but becomes epileptic as a result. Already an outcast at school due to his family situation, Woods becomes a pariah after the accident. Typical school bullying and roughhousing leads Alex into meeting an older man who becomes Alex’s Vergil as he descends into his own version of Inferno. The older man – Mr. Peterson, is a Vietnam veteran who holds several unconventional views about life that happen to mirror most of Alex’s innate views on life itself.
Despite the offbeat hook, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is lucid and logical. Alex describes his schooling without great detail, but begins reading advanced topics on his own. Eventually, the novel delves into Vonnegut’s entire canon, with allusions being made to various Vonnegut novels along with other works of literature. Catch-22 is mentioned, along with Nietzsche, and a wide variety of other well-known works. The Universe Versus Alex Woods reminds me of two other works: Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World and the film Finding Forrester (2000).
While Extence has a chess patzer background, his writing skill isn’t as patzerous as one would expect. One expects that his brief dalliance in the world of competitive cutthroat chess was just part of his own childhood experiences, but the structure and discipline to plan ahead in chess certainly translates into Extence’s writing. He’s planned ahead quite well, with small interlocking parts that combine to enhance the reading experience of this novel. Hilarious at times, heartbreaking others, and the novel eventually descends into a discussion about euthanasia, libertarianism, and what it means to be literary & live well.
Reading this novel was so pleasurable that it took me three weeks to get through it – reading chunk by chunk and savoring each as I went. Definitely see why Redhook saw such potential in this debut novel by Extence. Redhook is a new publishing group under the imprint of Hachette Book Group. According to a press release, Redhook only plans to publish books with bestseller potential, and at the beginning – will only print one or two books each month, in order to focus resources onto highlighting that featured book. If the rest of the books in their forthcoming lineup are as good as The Universe Versus Alex Woods, then we readers now have an another publishing group to always seek books out for. The publishing group Twelve, also under Hachette Book Group proved the one-book-a-month concept works. Any time I see the Twelve logo, I know I’ll always give that book a closer look. It appears that I’ll be adding Redhook to that shortlist of publishers that I always search out books from.
Without giving too much of the book away, each specific allusion Extence makes to other novels ties in their themes/concepts to this novel. Especially Catch-22. And of course, the Vonnegut novels. You don’t need to know the backstories of each allusion, or even to have read the books mentioned. Just knowing these references enhances your experience of this book, which is already pretty high in itself. It’s an entertaining read – breezy without being vapid, and while it won’t be canonized anytime soon, you can easily chalk this novel up as a solid entry into the world of literature.
Overall Grade – B+
Publisher: Redhook (June 25, 2013)
Binding (per Amazon): Hardcover with deckle edge pages
Page Count: 416
Source of Copy Reviewed: Digital advance copy provided by the publisher at my request
Original Language: British English