Nowadays, when one hears the term "young adult fiction," dystopias and vampires are the first subjects to come to mind. It feels as if the entire genre has been overtaken by doomsday tales and mystical characters, so when Gavin Extence's The Universe Versus Alex Woods opens with the title character being stopped by border patrol with 113 grams of marijuana and an urn full of his friend's ashes, it's nice to not have werewolves running off the page or R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" playing in your head. That being said, the life of Alex Woods is far from common, meaning that the genre still seems to need an extraordinary grab to pull in the young — or not so young — readers.
Alex's grab? He was struck in the head by a meteorite at age 10 leaving him with a scar on the side of his head — and a bald patch to match — that caused him to suffer brain damage as well as develop epilepsy. His mother is a wiccan who runs a mystical shop (I guess we'll never be completely free from occult themes in YA novels) and tells her preteen son that she's celibate. Even with this nod to the paranormal, Alex's endearing nature and precocious tone manage to steer the novel away from the typical path of supernatural teen books.
With touches of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as well as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Alex takes readers through the years (five to be exact) since his accident. The isolation of being housebound for a year, the trials of middle school as an uncool kid, and an unlikely friendship with the elderly Mr. Peterson all lend a hand in Alex's coming of age. It certainly can't be easy to be the kid who got hit in the head by a meteorite, making him an easy target for school bullies. His odd hobbies — or at least odd for a teenager — don't help much. Neurology, astrophysics, classical music, meditation, and Kurt Vonnegut probably don't rank a person very high on the cool scale. He describes himself as too smart yet not smart enough: He has an immense amount of knowledge about the human brain and space but is held back a year in school. His hobbies and odd behavior put him on the receiving end of the typical teenage bullies. Some of this abuse leads him to his only friend Mr. Peterson, an elderly Vietnam vet with whom his first encounter is awkward to say the least.
The introduction of Mr. Peterson is a vital plot moment. Alex must learn how to be a friend, and be a friend in the truest sense. The unlikely duo become fairly inseparable (perhaps with Mr. Peterson filling the father figure void in Alex's life) and lean on each other through some emotionally heavy moments. Extence uses the themes and stories of Kurt Vonnegut to creatively and deferentially explain Alex's developing emotions, morals, and practices. Through Vonnegut's writing and Mr. Peterson's explanations, Alex realizes that he, like Vonnegut, is a humanist who enjoys satire and shares an adoration for space. Without giving too much away, the final third of the book reveals how Alex wound up being detained with a car full of weed and cremated remains.
Sure, parts of The Universe Versus Alex Woods were infuriating — even slightly cookie cutter- and after school special-like — at times. I'm pretty sure doctors can't discuss other patients' medical status no matter how endearing the child is, and the mentors that Alex encounter provide much too sentimental and trivial advice. Yes, mean children do grow up and learn that their past discretions were not OK, and that "there's nothing wrong with being cerebral."
But it's Alex's quirks that really make the book work and allow us to look past these overwrought sentiments. He is a gawky teenager going through adolescence and sharing his cringeworthy situations. Precocious and awkward, Alex Woods truly is a welcome addition to the literary world, and one that is much more preferable than, say, Bella Swan.