Eighty Days Of Sunlight
Prospect Press, June 2015
288 pp; $18.00
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Reviewed by Marcella Prokop
Eighty Days of Sunlight, the debut novel from author Robert Yune, takes its title from a typical year in the city, offering moments of spectacular warmth amid the clouds of the characters’ lives.
“Pittsburgh, eighty days of sunlight a year. Andy Warhol had to flee to sunny New York,” muses protagonist and narrator Jason Han as he recounts a list of all things Pitt. Having distanced himself from the city, it’s easier for Han to appreciate what it means to have the sun when it shines.
On the surface, it makes sense that the Pittsburgh-based Yune uses the city as one of three settings for the book; but as readers move through different eras and different settings, a more subtle, delectable use of Pittsburgh becomes clear. As much as the city has struggled to define and re-define itself since the collapse of the steel industry, as a young adult, Han, too, is locked in a struggle to understand who he is.
In the beginning of the book, set in New Jersey, Han explains he’s happy to be one of the exotic Korean-American kids in his Boy Scouts troop. When a bullet pierces the young boy’s head during a Scout outing, his sense of self shifts from being exotic based on heritage to being exotic because of his trauma. After all, when his father decides he cannot care for the boy, Jason leaves his father and older brother, Tommy, to live with a doctor in Princeton. Almost overnight, the younger Han is transformed by the privilege and freedom of life with an older, affluent white couple.
I would like to make it clear that my childhood was not spent in existential torment over cultural identity or familial obligations,” he explains. “I considered my family low-class and cheap. I didn’t consider Korea at all.
It is at the end of high school that tragedy strikes again, when Jason and Tommy’s father commits suicide. Thrown together for the first time in years, the boys decide to find out why their father ended his life. A stint in the book factory where their father worked and life in Wilkes-Barre takes its toll, and the Han youth come together and fall apart over drugs, girls, and the home their father left to Jason.
As Yune crafts a story of family ties and gently illustrates the breakdown of said family, his characters come to life through dry wit, keen observation and just enough boob jokes to make readers truly feel like they’re spending time with men in their twenties.
And beyond the illuminated lives Yune creates, his own eye for detail brings to life the dark alleys and smoky bars his characters inhabit. And more importantly, in a gentle way, he’s able to capitalize on the few rays of sun his characters experience, creating for the reader moments of glittering beauty amid the stark landscapes of rural and urban Pennsylvania.
Marcella Prokop’s work has appeared in The Brooklyn Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Fourth River Online, The Coal Hill Review and PANK, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University and teaches creative writing online for Southern New Hampshire University.