In Yune’s moving and darkly comic debut novel, a young Korean-American man struggles to come to terms with his cultural identity and dysfunctional working-class family.
When Jason’s father loses his blue-collar job, he sends his young son and Jason’s antagonistic brother, Tommy, to stay with a friend called “the doctor” and his wife in Princeton, New Jersey, while he looks for work. Once he’s situated in a job at a book bindery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Tommy is called home to live with their now-overworked and abusive father, but Jason remains in the doctor’s household, where he’s brought up in affluence and privilege. The father’s suicide brings the rival brothers back together, as Jason discovers he has inherited his father’s house. Both brothers take work at the Wilkes-Barre book bindery, determined that their father’s former workplace holds the secret to his premature death. The brothers are ultimately disappointed by the banal truth surrounding their father’s suicide, and when Tommy is let go after a physical altercation with another employee, Jason eventually leaves the physically and emotionally oppressive work behind to follow his brother and attend college in Pittsburgh. There, the siblings’ tense relationship deepens as Jason attempts to refine his sense of identity and Tommy’s drinking and drug use spiral further out of control. With neither brother able to get much traction in their lives, Jason returns to the doctor’s household for a respite, while his brother comes perilously close to self-destruction. The brothers seem best able to relate as part of triangular relationships, first with their father and later with a charming art student named Kate, and Yune’s exploration of this dynamic is fascinating. The prose is frequently stunning, as in a description of Tommy’s role in a bar fight: “…he was throwing himself before the mercy of the nation’s sharp young men, bulging with bovine growth hormone, testosterone, and date rape.” Yune also proves himself an expert at wry observation: “Reading,” he writes of the dehumanizing atmosphere of the bindery, “was forbidden in the book factory.”
Equal parts hilarity and heartbreak in an accomplished debut.