The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut

A while ago I blogged about how I like to pick up books at the library without much knowledge about who wrote them or what the plot might be, beyond what I could read on the book jacket. It’s led me down some interesting fictional paths, including two books that have similar themes yet distinct, unique plots that make each satisfying.

SPOILERS (Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.)


The first novel I stumbled upon was The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand. Adam is a teenager who lives in western Illinois along the Mississippi River. He’s bored, listless, doesn’t really like who he his, where he is or any of the people around him, be they friends, family or just fellow townspeople. He’s pretty much an average American teen. Oh, except he can’t die. Not at all. He knows. He’s tried 39 times. Jump off a bridge, shoot himself, throw himself from a moving car. It just doesn’t work. And that bothers him. A lot. Which is why he’s tried 39 times, believing he has nothing to live for and that, at some point, he’s bound to succeed.

Along the way, Adam starts to re-examine what he holds to be true. His older brother left home after high school and pretty much never came back, fearing his younger brother. Adam pities his parents, who don’t know how to handle him because of his … ability. He’s not close any of the boys his age who he calls friends. Beyond a cool teacher, a female friend who ends up being more interested in another guy and a little girl who he has a rapport with, he feels little toward anyone. But … his mom tries her best to make little moments happen, to touch her son briefly even if bonding so often seems out of the question. Adam believes he knows that two local men are responsible for returning him to his home after each “death,” but it turns out to be his father is the one who has tracked him down every time, his father the one who sees his broken body and carries him home. The boys he hangs out with, the only people he really trusts, attempt to exploit his ability. The cool teacher moves away, leaving Adam without the closest thing he has to a therapist. And the little girl helps him change his outlook on life and welcoming an early death. Everything Adam holds to be true is challenged, slowly building connections out of the disconnect.

Author Greg Galloway references everything from YouTube to Kafka in Adam’s voice. The narrative and reading level make it a satisfying read for adults, and interesting one for teens. Galloway never comes off as condescending to Adam, but is understanding that life and maturity lead to alterations of how one views the world. Adam’s evolution from start to finish is natural and worthy of the journey.

The Universe versus Alex Woods pb jacketI picked up The Universe versus Alex Woods solely because of the book jacket recommendation by author Jasper Fforde, whose absurdist Tuesday Next series and the inventive Shades of Gray (not the insipid mom porn that’s dominated the best seller lists) I’d highly recommend to anyone with an active imagination and an appreciation for authors such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. I consider Fforde to be one of the more inventive modern novelists I’ve come across, so I felt like I couldn’t pass this tome up.

Alex Woods has a lot in common with Adam. Alex is a teen with few friends his own age and is generally disconnected from the people around him. He, too, stands out in his community, but not because he can’t die, but because he almost did. Alex is one of two people in recorded history who has been hit by a meteorite and lived. Alex has another special connection with death, through his friend, Mr. Peterson, a neighbor and confidante who is dying of a degenerative disease.

Only where Adam found how to shed his deadly obsession and embrace life, Alex learns to face his fears and accept death. Mr. Peterson, upon finding out he has a degenerative disease, attempts suicide, Alex is angry. For Alex, who revels in the fact that he cheated death at an early age, comprehension of Mr. Peterson’s situation takes time. Part of the bond between Alex and Mr. Peterson is their mutual admission of their atheist beliefs (thus Alex’s founding of the Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, he and Mr. Peterson’s favorite author and a frequent touchstone throughout the novel). Knowing in his heart that nothing is beyond that final moment, Alex can’t believe someone would rush to the end. But Mr. Peterson is firm, knowing he will be unable to read, speak, do anything beyond live in fear and frustration, a prisoner of his own decaying body. Alex comes to accept Mr. Peterson’s wishes, and when the time comes that the disease cripples his friend, Alex agrees to help Mr. Peterson to go comfortably and on his own terms.

Gavin Extence also has a reverence and respect for his young lead character. For all of his intelligence and maturity beyond his years, Alex maintains a naiveté that gives him unique perspective. Extence also surrounds Alex with a cast of unique, believable characters who challenge and support him. The believablity factor is higher with Alex Woods than 39 Deaths, a necessity to make this particular tale connect.

Two tales of death, one a reaffirmation of life, the other an acceptance of the end we’ll all face. You can’t go wrong with either.

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One thought on “The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut

  1. jane says:

    I cannot say enough good things about “The Universe Versus Alex Woods.” In fact, I can’t possibly like anyone who does not LOVE that book. And another fact, today I e-mailed Janet Maslin at the NYT to ask if they are snubbing it. Because how have they missed out on this gem?

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