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Authors: Gavin Extence

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The Universe Versus Alex Woods

BOOK: The Universe Versus Alex Woods
The Universe Versus Alex Woods
Extence, Gavin
Redhook (2013)
General Fiction

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn't had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he's fairly sure he's done the right thing ...

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world,
The Universe Versus Alex Woods
is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.


"Warm and funny and tragic and uplifting all in one. Extence should be on everyone's radar." (
Jasper Fforde

"Mark Haddon meets Kurt Vonnegut." (

"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." (

"A bittersweet, cross-audience charmer, this debut novel will appeal to guys, YA readers, and Vonnegut and coming-of-age fiction fans." (
Library Journal

About the Author

Gavin Extence was born in 1982 and grew up in the interestingly named village of Swineshead, England. From the ages of 5-11, he enjoyed a brief but illustrious career as a chess player, winning numerous national championships and travelling to Moscow and St Petersburg to pit his wits against the finest young minds in Russia. He won only one game.

Gavin now lives in Sheffield with his wife, baby daughter and cat. He is currently working on his second novel. When he is not writing, he enjoys cooking, amateur astronomy and going to Alton Towers.

Gavin Extence

First published in Great Britain in 2013 by

Hodder & Stoughton

An Hachette UK company

Copyright © Gavin Extence 2013

The right of Gavin Extence to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Extracts from
© 1969 and
Breakfast of Champions
© 1973 both by Kurt Vonnegut, published by Jonathan Cape. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Limited and Donald C. Farber, Trustee of the Kurt Vonnegut Copyright Trust.

Extracts from
The Sirens of Titan
© 1959 by Kurt Vonnegut reprinted by permission of Donald C. Farber, Trustee of the Kurt Vonnegut Copyright Trust.

Extracts from
© 1961 by Joseph Heller reprinted by permission of The Joseph Heller Estate.

Many thanks to Martin Beech for permission to feature an extract from
Meteors and Meteorites: Origins and Observations

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978 1 444 76590 8

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

338 Euston Road

London NW1 3BH

Table of Contents

Title Page



1. Entender

2. Iridium-193

3. The Queen of Cups

4. Electrical Storms

5. Brainbound

6. Welcome to the Monkey House

7. Creosote

8. Penance

9. Methane

10. Sars

11. The Apposite Word

12. Piercing

13. Death

14. Half a Month of Sundays

15. Microfractures

16. Timequake

17. Sectioned

18. Pact

19. The Cannabis Factory

20. Escape

21. Elementary Particles

22. The House with no Name

23. Will


For Alix, without whom this book would not exist.


They finally stopped me at Dover as I was trying to get back into the country. I was half expecting it, but it still came as kind of a shock when the barrier stayed down. It’s funny how some things can be so mixed up like that. Having come this far, I’d started to think that I might make it the whole way home after all. It would have been nice to have been able to explain things to my mother. You know: before anyone else had to get involved.

It was 1 a.m., and it was raining. I’d rolled Mr Peterson’s car up to the booth in the ‘Nothing to Declare’ lane, where a single customs officer was on duty. His weight rested on his elbows, his chin was cupped in his hands, and, but for this crude arrangement of scaffolding, his whole body looked ready to fall like a sack of potatoes to the floor. The graveyard shift – dreary dull from dusk till dawn – and for a few heartbeats it seemed that the customs officer lacked the willpower necessary to rotate his eyeballs and check my credentials. But then the moment collapsed. His gaze shifted; his eyes widened. He signalled for me to wait and spoke into his walkie-talkie, rapidly and with obvious agitation. That was the instant I knew for sure. I found out later that my picture had been circulated in every major port from Aberdeen to Plymouth. With that and the TV appeals, I never stood a chance.

What I remember next is kind of muddled and strange, but I’ll try to describe it for you as best I can.

The side door of the booth was swinging open and at the same moment there washed over me the scent of a field full of lilacs. It came on just like that, from nowhere, and I knew straight away that I’d have to concentrate extra hard to stay in the present. In hindsight, an episode like this had been on the cards for a while. You have to bear in mind that I hadn’t slept properly for several days, and Bad Sleeping Habits has always been one of my triggers. Stress is another.

I looked straight ahead and I focussed. I focussed on the windscreen wipers moving back and forth and tried to count my breaths, but by the time I’d got to five, it was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be enough. Everything was becoming slow and blurry. I had no choice but to turn the stereo up to maximum. Handel’s
flooded the car – the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, loud enough to rattle the exhaust. I hadn’t planned it or anything. I mean, if I’d had time to prepare for this, I’d have chosen something simpler and calmer and quieter: Chopin’s nocturnes or one of Bach’s cello suites, perhaps. But I’d been working my way through Mr Peterson’s music collection since Zurich, and it just so happened that at that precise moment I was listening to
precise section of Handel’s
– like it was Fate’s funny joke. Of course, this did me no favours later on: the customs officer gave a full report to the police in which he said that for a long time I’d resisted detention, that I’d just sat there ‘staring into the night and listening to religious music at full volume, like he was the Angel of Death or something’. You’ve probably heard that quote already. It was in all the papers – they have a real boner for details like that. But you should understand that at the time I didn’t have a choice. I could see the customs officer in my peripheral vision, hunchbacked at my window in his bright yellow jacket, but I forced myself to ignore him. He shone his torch in my eyes, and I ignored that too. I just kept staring straight ahead and focussing on the music. That was my anchor. The lilacs were still there, trying their best to distract me. The Alps were starting to intrude – jagged, frosted memories, as sharp as needles. I swaddled them in the music. I kept telling myself that there was nothing
the music. There was nothing but the strings and the drums and the trumpets, and all those countless voices singing out God’s praises. I know in retrospect that I must have looked pretty suspicious, just sitting there like that with my eyes glazed and the music loud enough to wake the dead. It must have sounded like I had the entire London Symphony Orchestra performing on the back seat. But what could I do? When you get an aura that powerful, there’s no chance of it passing of its own accord: to be honest with you, there were several moments when I was right on the precipice. I was just a hair’s breadth from convulsions.

But after a while, the crisis abated. Something slipped back into gear. I was dimly aware that the torch beam had moved on. It was now frozen on the space two feet to my left, though I was too frazzled to figure out why at the time. It was only later that I remembered Mr Peterson was still in the passenger seat. I hadn’t thought to move him.

The moments ticked on, and eventually the torchlight swung away. I managed to turn my head forty-five degrees and saw that the customs officer was again speaking into his walkie-talkie, palpably excited. Then he tapped the torch against the window and made an urgent downwards gesture. I don’t remember pushing the button, but I do remember the rush of cold, damp air as the glass rolled down. The customs officer mouthed something, but I couldn’t make it out. The next thing I knew, he’d reached through the open window and flipped off the ignition. The engine stopped, and a second later, the last hallelujah died on the night air. I could hear the hiss of drizzle on tarmac, fading in slowly, like reality resolving itself. The customs officer was speaking too, and waving his arms in all these weird, wobbly gestures, but my brain wasn’t able to decode any of that yet. Right then, there was something else going on – a thought that was fumbling its way towards the light. It took me for ever to organize my ideas into words, but when I finally got there, this is what I said: ‘Sir, I should tell you that I’m no longer in a fit state to drive. I’m afraid you’ll have to find someone else to move the car for me.’

For some reason, that seemed to choke him. His face went through a whole series of strange contortions, and then for a very long time he just stood there with his mouth open. If it had been me standing there with my mouth open, it would have been considered pretty rude, but I don’t think it’s worth getting too uptight about things like that. So I just waited. I’d said what I needed to say, and it had taken considerable effort. I didn’t mind being patient now.

When he’d cleared his airways, the customs officer told me that I had to get out of the car and come with him straight away. But the funny thing was, as soon as he said it, I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to move yet. My hands were still locked white on the steering wheel, and they showed no signs of relinquishing their grip. I asked if I could possibly have a minute.

‘Son,’ the customs officer said, ‘I need you to come

I glanced across at Mr Peterson. Being called ‘son’ was not a good omen. I thought I was probably in a Whole Heap of Shit.

My hands unlocked.

I managed to get out of the car, reeled and then leaned up against the side for a few seconds. The customs officer tried to get me to move, but I told him that unless he wanted to carry me, he’d have to give me a moment to find my feet. The drizzle was prickling the exposed skin on my neck and face, and small tears of rain were beginning to bead on my clothing. I could feel all my sensations regrouping. I asked how long it had been raining. The customs officer looked at me but didn’t reply. The look said that he wasn’t interested in small talk.

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