Age and the academy dominate John Rember’s latest collection, Sudden Death, Over Time. Master of the cynical first person male, Rember repeatedly places readers in the context of professors well past their prime, who know that their best choice left is to smirk at the absurdity surrounding their departments, their students, and their love lives and to plod along.
The usual suspects orbit the slowing rotation of each narrator: manic students, predatory male professors, self-righteous feminists, obtusely honest administrators. If not cemented in the consistent voice Rember employs in each tale, the characters would fade into stereotypes. Yet Rember seems to count on our doubting his narrators, these mostly fermented wise-ass gents who are too old now to see college life as anything but a circus.
“Why do we have to learn this shit?” an overweight student asks a history professor teaching Augustine’s Confessions in “Nocturne.”
“Augustine finally found the strength to resist the temptations of the flesh,” the professor answers, adding that Augustine should serve as a role model. “You would be thinner, and you would be smarter.”
Comments like this land the professor’s new office in “the Bunker,” part boiler room, part ex-fallout shelter, a metaphor for where Rember would put all of his narrators, in a secluded place where their honesty won’t do the institution or the world any harm.
Here’s another chestnut from the professor’s voicemail: “If Grandmother has died again, choose between learning about the decay of Rome or going to the funeral and learning about the decay of Grandmother. The former will allow you to pass the final.”
Rember’s characters, of course, say what many a professor would like to but can’t, whether he’s teaching history as above or English in “The Swimming Pool” and “Dead Birds Don’t Make Good Pets” or biology in “Selfish Gene” or psychology in “Poetry Can Wait” or even serving as college chaplain in “Only I Have Escaped to Tell You.”
Of course, even the chaplain has lost his faith. When asked by the college president if Jesus Christ is his personal savior, he answers, “I’m waiting for an answer from the committee. It’s got three members. They argue a lot. It takes them forever to make a decision.”
Rember’s dark humor dominates the collection, yet he’s also able to penetrate emotions with sincerely stunning observations: “But memories are alive—they must be, considering all the damage they do.”
As we suspect, the humor is merely a way to cope with loss, disappointment, and longing, leaving these men just skirting more of the unknown, if not staring straight into it. Only the narrator in the title and final story gets a moment of peace, earned, one should note, by his leaving the university after marrying one of his students, twenty years his junior.
Not that life away from the academy is any better, as seen in “The Old Guys Ski Club,” the only tale not involving academics. Though the narrator here is no professor, he thinks like one, contemplating life’s mysteries as he prepares for his condolence lover in her bedroom: “It’s only moonlight, but I can watch it as it comes, watch it as it covers over the world and its torn edges, and hides so well anything that hurts or lives.”
Rember’s world requires cover of some kind, whether it be a higher education or a highly evolved sense of humor. Both counter the ever-present doom that makes this collection a cynic’s paradise.