reviewed by Michelle Armstrong
John Rember’s collection of short stories in Sudden Death, Over Time are both familiar and unexpected. Born and raised in Idaho, Rember uses his knowledge of the state to develop settings which most Idahoans would recognize. However, Rember was also a professor of literature and writing at the College of Idaho and Pacific University, and uses his experiences with academia to help him create stories which are both humorous and a little bit absurd.
As suggested by the book’s title, death as a theme runs throughout the stories. In “Only I Have Escaped to Tell You,” two college professors are on a rescue mission to find a lost hiker. Both men are struggling with issues of faith and seem unable to adequately respond to the possibility of finding the hiker’s body. Although death is a constant element throughout each story, Rember does not dwell on it in a morbid or depressing way. Each story uses death to help frame ideas such as loss, ending, fear and resentment. In “Dead Birds Don’t Make Good Pets,” a professor is unable to prevent a talented student from committing suicide. In “The Old Guys Ski Club,” Rember expresses both empathy and pleasure as the girlfriend of the main character’s ex-wife reveals that her relationship has ended. Occasionally Rember presents death as a kind of peace, as in the final story, “Sudden Death, Over Time,” where the main character finds some solitude as he celebrates his 54th birthday with his wife, Angel:
But memories are alive – they must be, considering all the damage they do. It’s probably good we can’t see them all the time. It’s probably good – for the sake of my birthday celebration – that Angle’s staked out a small space and time in this world where I can sit untroubled by my past and my future, my birth and my death (144).
These stories are also irreverent, particularly towards academia. There is no idealized concept of the professoriate. Instead, his characters are incredibly flawed and prone to breaching both decorum and official policy. In “Selfish Gene,” Rember describes how the main character, a chemistry professor, has stored materials, including mercury, anthrax, and plutonium from the chemistry stockroom in his crawl space. In the same story, he describes another professor who is fired after sleeping with a student. Although he does not comment on the value of education, he does draw into question the importance of intellectual aspirations by highlighting political maneuvers by both faculty and administrators. In “No Time for Poetry,” a candidate for a position with the English Department blackmails her way into the job, while in “Nocturne,” the university administration moves the main character into the basement of an old steam plant in order to encourage him to retire.
Sudden Death, Over Time will appeal to adult patrons of both public and academic libraries. John Rember’s writing style is clear and accessible, and his artful prose is eloquent without being pretentious. The eight stories never feel moralistic, but leave you with a sense that you have gained a deeper insight into the character’s motivations and relationships. Most of all, Sudden Death, Over Time leaves you wanting more of John Rember’s work.
Michelle Armstrong is a librarian at Albertsons Library at Boise State University. Ms. Armstrong oversees the development of ScholarWorks, Boise State’s institutional repository, and serves as the Library Liaison for the Graduate College and Department of Mathematics.