THE PRETTIEST STAR. By Carter Sickels. Hub City Press. 295 pages. $26.
“It’s going to be okay.” This is the refrain we hear over and over from the characters in Carter Sickels’ shattering family saga, "The Prettiest Star." And yet nothing is OK. The novel is set in 1986, the height of the AIDS epidemic, and Brian, the oldest child and only son of Sharon and Travis Jackson, has returned from New York City to his rural hometown of Chester, Ohio, where it is not OK to be gay, and certainly not OK to have HIV/AIDS.
Brian’s mother offers this flimsy assurance to her dying son, and to her teenage daughter Jess, suffering the brutal cruelty of high school bullying while also grieving the day-by-day diminishment of her beloved brother. “It’s going to be okay,” the reader truly wants to believe, as we are drawn toward this family, sharing in their fear, confusion, rage and heartbreak, thanks to Sickels’ extraordinary character development. And yet we know from the first page how it will end. Brian, like all his New York friends, like his lover Shawn, like thousands of vibrant young men who dared to love other men in the Reagan era, dies. It wasn’t OK.
What is much more than OK, however, is the masterful way that Sickels, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and former winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, constructs tender tension as we get to know Brian and his family, and as we begin to better understand the realities of a town like Chester. This is where Dot’s diner, a popular meat-and-three, serves up rancid homophobia, where the slick minister and his smarmy youth-group leader son, a former high school friend of Brian’s, preach a twisted gospel of hate the sin, and the sinner.
Chester is where, in one of the most riveting scenes, a lifeguard at the public swimming pool makes Brian get out of the water, then closes the pool during the hottest days of summer to disinfect it. The palpable humiliation makes you want to swim far, far away.
The beauty of this book is both its unvarnished ugliness and also the loveliness of Brian’s bravery, of his friend Annie’s fearless care and authenticity, of grandmother Lettie’s relentless acceptance and rebellious ferocity. Sickels' chapters shift from narrator to narrator, but he gives depth and nuance to each first-person voice, making these transitions not only easy to navigate but compelling, creating a narrative momentum that contrasts with Brian’s life ebbing away, and with the shame-wrecked marriage of Sharon and Travis.
Even Travis, who can neither accept that his son is gay nor find the tenderness to comfort him in his dying days, has qualities that, if not redeemable, help the reader understand the complexity of relationships and the emotional damage inflicted in the days before "LGBTQ" was part of the lexicon, when sexual identity and gender fluidity were far from fluid.
To read "The Prettiest Star" (the title derives from Brian’s favorite David Bowie tune) during a pandemic, when death, illness, fear and misinformation abound, when mask-wearing becomes a political issue rather than a public health no-brainer, is to realize how far we’ve come since the AIDS crisis, and how far we still have to go.
A year ago at the outset of the pandemic, when we thought maybe lockdown would last two weeks, I read Rebecca Makkai’s "The Great Believers," a book about AIDS in Chicago during the same time period as Sickels’ novel, and felt many of the twinges of auspicious timing and familiarity that "The Prettiest Star" elicits. While Makkai’s book is brilliantly sweeping, Sickels’ feels so intimate, so personal. The grief is inescapable, yet painfully redemptive.
I am far from the only reader gutted by Sickels’ second novel, which was named a Kirkus Best Book of 2020 and the Best LGBT Book of 2020 by O Magazine, and most recently won the 2021 Southern Book Prize, a reader-choice award. It is queer fiction of the highest order, which is to say, a story of our humanity laid bare, a story for everyone.
“Travis wants things to go back to the way they never were,” Sharon, his wife and Brian’s mom, says at one point. Sickels favors the tight phrase, the slim sentence, but he says so much in so few words. Those small yet searing insights poke a million holes in your heart — holes through which the light of "The Prettiest Star" can dazzle their way in.