What happens when a son returns home and he’s sick with the most feared disease of our time? This is the question at the heart of Carter’s Sickels second novel, The Prettiest Star. This question is posed by a charismatic TV host in the novel and it serves as a guiding question throughout the narrative.
The Prettiest Star, a Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund Series Book out from Hub City Press, tackles the story of Brian, a young, gay man who has AIDS and has left his small-town Ohio life for New York City. In the first chapter we see Brian, bereft after the death of his long-term boyfriend and the deaths of many close friends, turning back toward home. The rest of the novel spills out from that central question, what happens when a man with AIDS returns to rural America in 1986?
Told from the perspectives of Brian, his mother Sharon, and his sister Jess, The Prettiest Star is interested in the limits of silence and secrets and the fragility of human life. The most arresting aspects of the novel are the sections narrated by the mother, Sharon. Sickels does a wonderful job of portraying the impact of the AIDS epidemic on families, particularly the mothers and fathers who struggled to accept their children’s sexuality. Sharon is a loving mother but she is also deeply religious and entrenched in a small town full of homophobia. Even before learning that her son has AIDS, she has been mourning him, mourning the fact that he left his home and family and moved to New York. When her mother-in-law tells her that she dreamt of Brian, Sharon says “every receptor in my skin rises like a thousand candlewicks suddenly alight and burning. Nobody else in the family ever mentions Brian, only Lettie — and whenever she says his name, a thin delicate fissure cracks my chest, bones splinter like dry wood.”
A large part of Sharon’s grief stems from the fact that she is still mourning a future that will never be, a very American vision she thought her family was headed towards. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she says, “They were the ones with troubled kids: teen pregnancy, jail, school suspension. Travis and I were different from his brothers and their families, and so were our children, who we believed would go to college and find good jobs, get married and give us grandchildren, and live close by. They’d live happy lives like the kind you see on television. We felt protected from tragedy and looked forward to the future, a glistening river of possibilities.”
Much of the heart of The Prettiest Star is about this gulf between the life you thought you’d live and the one you are living, and about the sweetness that resides in the simple facts of life. Brian, reflecting on his life before he and his boyfriend developed AIDS, says, “This night, we thought then, was just one of many. This is what life was, and this is what our lives were supposed to be. […] We were just living.” The same could be said for the community in Chester, Ohio that Brian returns to. When the townspeople find out that he is HIV positive, many of them turn hateful and mean, but a part of their rage is the fact that they too, like Sharon, like Brian, are just trying desperately to hang onto the life they are “supposed” to live: church picnics at the swimming pool, Sunday dinners at the local diner. They act selfishly, but Sickels does not depict their selfishness in a vacuum but rather seems to ask, aren’t we all selfish? Or rather, what exactly is selfish?
Was it selfish of Brian to leave his hometown, despite the fact that he could not live openly there? Sharon certainly feels there was an amount of selfishness in that act. Was it selfish of him to come home once he was sick? Many of the townspeople of Chester would say yes, but they too are just seeking comfort. Sickels is an expert at rendering the lush comfortability of everyday small-town life — strawberry shortcake, freshly folded laundry, the smell of rain on a hot summer night, and the lovely predictability of afternoon TV — and the ways that these small comforts become the markers of our passing lives. How, when we realize the fragility of our own bodies, we all cling to the small things. There is of course the boredom and small-mindedness we associate with small-town life, but Sickels also envelopes his very prose with a deep respect for the pleasures of rural America.
Brian’s father, Travis, is in many ways a representation of small-town life incarnate, though he too has been away to Vietnam. Travis is something of a ghost throughout most of the novel, his voice coming into the narrative only at the end. This depiction of the quiet, hardworking man who nearly disappears into the background, is in many ways quite accurate, but the inclusion of his voice and his perspective throughout more of the novel would have benefited the book immensely. The one chapter where his voice is featured is wonderfully wrought and only made me wish there was more of him. The sections where Sharon openly struggles with her love of her son versus her concept of homosexuality as a sin were some of the most intriguing passages and it would have been wonderful to see Travis’s struggles as well. The silent, stoic man probably has a lot more going on in his head than he permits himself to say.
Additionally, Sickels relies on a device to relay much of Brian’sthoughts and emotions. The conceit is that Brian is videotaping himself, a kind of spoken diary. While interesting at first, this device eventually only served to distance the reader from Brian. We never get his thoughts and feelings as the events play out, we only ever see them in reflection and so they quickly become summary instead of scenes.
The Prettiest Star is a beautifully quiet book, even with all the big subjects that it tackles. What it is most interested in is the pulse of a son, the pulse of a mother, the pulse of a town. It investigates the ways that our lives carry secrets, long and silent, and the ways that our lives can turn on us just as we turn on one another. The Prettiest Star is an extended examination of vulnerability and loyalty on both a large and small scale.
The Prettiest Star
By Carter Sickels
Hub City Press
Published May 19, 2020
Mesha Maren is the author of the novel Sugar Run (Algonquin Books). Her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Oxford American, The Southern Review, Triquarterly, Crazyhorse and elsewhere. She serves as a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellow at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia and is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Duke University.