Review of Love in the Time of Climate Change by Brian Adams
by Sage Kalmus
Twice while starting Brian Adams’ Love in the Time of Climate Change I had to pause and review the book jacket to make sure it was indeed a work of fiction I was reading. Sure enough, there I saw it each time, on the cover in small print beside the author’s name, the definitive declaration: “a novel.” Yet mine was an easy mistake to make, as the book begins with an expository—if cheeky—primer on what’s later referred to as “The Issue.” Then again, isn’t this how so many novels start: by setting the scene for the tale to come? In this case it just so happens to be the backdrop of global warming.
The true start of the novel opens on Day One of the new semester at a small community college in western Massachusetts, as our narrator, Casey, an environmental studies professor, prepares to greet his new group of students. He begins, he tells the reader, the same as he has every previous semester: by revealing to his class his debilitating illness, Obsessive Climate Disorder (OCD.) Little does our quixotic narrator know that in this particular class is one student with the power to help him, if not cure his disease, then certainly ameliorate its symptoms. And it is these symptoms of Professor Casey’s self-diagnosed OCD that we witness him suffer through as he attempts to win hearts and change minds: one heart and mind, as he’s soon to discover, in particular.
An early clue that this book is more than just a thinly disguised sermon on the mount comes when two of the students in Casey’s extra-curricular group, The Climate Changers, get into an embittered battle over which of them is the more tenacious bicyclist. Clearly saving the world poses the possibly greater threat of ego annihilation (as in annihilating the world with one’s own ego.) It doesn’t take long to realize this story is far more about the struggle an individual goes through to live from day to day in the face of a damning reality than it is an attempt to educate an audience who likely already knows much of what he speaks. To simply say the author here is preaching to the converted would be disingenuous because he’s not preaching: he’s satirizing. He simply happens to be satirizing his own deeply held beliefs. This makes for some rather bold self-deprecating humor. For example, when a student comes to his office alarmed from her newfound awareness of our true environmental condition, Casey reacts at first with self-satisfaction, thinking, “Yes! Got ’em!” followed immediately thereafter by, “Of course, what this really means is that they’re now doomed for a lifetime of extreme anxiety, possible depression, constant angst, and a whole host of other intellectual trauma…But hey, such is the price of education. Right?”
In such ways this novel often seems a case study on contradiction, on collateral hypocrisy, on trying to “walk the walk”, to “practice what you preach” in a world that makes such feats prohibitive. Thus we witness Casey forced by circumstance to patronize his Corporate Enemy #1: Walmart, only to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of humiliation while inside. Throughout Casey’s misadventures I was often reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, doomed to forever roll his boulder up a hill only to find that, just when he gets it near the top, it rolls past him all the way to the bottom again.
Likewise love, Casey finds, is not without its Sysiphusian hurdles, in this case that the object of his affections is also a student. Never mind that she is a peer in age, and even a fellow teacher, of youngsters, and at an entirely different school to boot. Casey’s professional moral code is as strict as his climatological one. Of course, all codes are meant to be tested, and indeed it is watching Casey butt up against these imperious standards of his that provides some of this novel’s richest humor—particularly when it’s his lust, second only to morals behind his steering wheel, responsible for such collisions. Case in point: when Casey ruins his chances of a sure-thing with a hot and perfectly available female when her apartment bears the unavoidable evidence of her environmental ignorance. Or when he takes his class on a field trip to an awe-inspiring earth friendly home only to have its message overshadowed when that special student he’s aiming to impress the most gets attacked by geese while he stands there paralyzed to help her. At times one has to wonder if this bumbling narrator can ever overcome his neuroses enough to land any woman, let alone the one of his dreams, and it’s both a torture and a delight to watch him trip over himself as he discovers, time and again, that all the science in the world can’t help him navigate the tides of love.
This novel is at its best, however, when it does precisely what its author seems clearly to have set out to do in devising it: using unexpected moments of mundane life to illuminate yet another way in which climate change affects us without us even knowing it. For example when Casey and the object of his affections visit an apple orchard only to discover the trees completely bare, as the unseasonable return of winter the previous spring killed off all the apple blossoms before they could flower. Or when Casey and his pothead roommate find their own moral boundaries tested in the face of their neighbor’s energy-sucking Halloween yard decor.
In short, Love in the Time of Climate Change is a light-hearted look at a heavy-hearted subject. But the love story embedded within the tale is far more than a literary device to keep readers entertained through the story’s teaching moments. In fact it proves to supply the missing ingredient in an adult child’s delayed maturation into manhood. Without the love story in our life we’re all doomed to the ravages we’ve wrought on ourselves, is the message.
The reference in the novel’s title to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera seems apparent. And while both stories detail an epidemic bound invariably to leave no one in its path unscathed, if I have to confront the imminent end of the world (at least as I know it) I would much rather take that ride with Casey and his manic band of Climate Changers, because with them at least I know I’ll go out laughing.
Book review by Sage Kalmus
Sage Kalmus is a freelance writer and editor since 2004. He earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Lesley University where he was honored as student speaker at his graduation. He earned a B.S. in Film & Broadcasting from Boston University. His article “Believe in Magic” appears in the current issue (May 2015) of The Writer magazine. His short stories have appeared in Whisperings magazine, CARNIVAL Magazine, Rose Red Review, and he published an essay in The Hampshire Gazette.