Robert Yune. Eighty Days of Sunlight. Brooklyn, NY: Thought Catalog Books, 2015. $18 paper.
If you’re looking for a heartwarming story about two brothers forgiving each other’s shortcomings in order to uncover the sordid details of their father’s death, this isn’t it.
Though it has its heartwarming moments, Eighty Days of Sunlight, the debut novel from Pitt MFA alumnus Robert Yune (the penname used by current Pitt Visiting Lecturer Robert Stevens), is anything but. This fast-paced, gritty novel takes readers on a wild ride, a rage- and mystery-fueled bender, from Princeton to Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh and back again.
When Yune’s spunky, darkly-sarcastic narrator, Jason Han, a young Korean-American boy, falls victim to a camping “accident” involving .22 rifle bullets and a campfire, his life (and that of his older brother Tommy and their father) begins to spiral slowly downward. Jason’s father loses his job. The boys are sent to live with mysterious friends, referred to as “the doctor” and his wife, in Princeton, N.J. Once their father regains employment in a book bindery in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Tommy goes off to live with him, while Jason remains in Princeton, raised in a life of comfort and privilege.
Years later, the brothers are reunited by a less-than-fortunate circumstance—their father’s mysterious death. Left with nothing but an empty house and near-empty bottles of booze, the pair, still hanging on to their sibling rivalry, decide to investigate the cause of the death by finding work in the same book bindery where their father spent his last days. After frustrations, altercations, and an ultimately unfulfilling investigation, Jason and Tommy leave Wilkes-Barre behind for Pittsburgh, specifically our own Oakland neighborhood, where Tommy lives while attending Carnegie Mellon University.
What follows is Jason’s journey to self-discovery as he begins his college education, and Tommy’s decline due to drug use and aggressive behavior. Together, the pair live a life not too different from today’s Pitt students—thanks to Yune’s eloquent and descriptive prose, you can practically feel the tacky stickiness of a beer-soaked South Oakland basement floor and catch the scent of a late-night pizza from Sorrento’s as it wafts through the air. But college isn’t all play for the brothers. As in their youth, their relationship is constantly put to the test over identity, women, and the lingering remnants of their father’s death.
Rather than taking the classic coming-of-age novel route and providing a sugar-coated, totally resolved ending for Jason and Tommy, Yune takes a more mature path, as if to tell readers that life is not at all like the books you read as a teenager—you don’t miraculously pass your classes, you don’t solve all your problems, you don’t always get the girl. He does so by painting vivid and brutally honest portraits of family, addiction, race, and identity, portraits that are far more realistic than the newest YA paperback.
Throughout the novel, race and identity often appear as personal struggles and points of contention for Tommy and Jason. Tommy strongly identifies with their shared Korean background, while Jason, after being raised in a predominantly white community in Princeton, isn’t quite sure where he fits in. Yune deals with these disparities with a certain gracefulness and dose of reality, forcing Jason to reconcile his emotions surrounding his heritage through a series of letters to his father and several therapy sessions.
Though each brother may not find exactly what he was looking for in the novel’s early pages, Yune’s carefully crafted prose brings each to his own vague resolution, leaving readers to wonder and hope for the best for both.