Marginalia: Ron Tanner on Carter Sickles

The Prettiest Star, by Carter Sickles. Hub City Press, 288 pp., $26.00.

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, returns the reader to 1986, as the AIDs crisis catches fire across America. The story’s central character, Brian, is HIV-positive and may be dying of AIDs himself, shortly after his partner of two years has died of the disease. Now alone and adrift in New York City, Brian “no longer went out, not even for work. He’d lost his job. Nobody would hire him now; they’d see his sickness; they’d know. Annie, his roommate and best friend, said she would help with rent and take care of him, but he didn’t want that. He wanted…to leave.” And so he returns to the small, southeastern Ohio town he left abruptly six years ago.

Thus begins a tense adventure of sorts, as Brian’s return roils the placid lives of his family–mother, father, sister, grandmother–his small-minded uncles and cousins, and their curious, overly-cautious neighbors. Sickels makes the smart decision to tell this unfolding drama in three, alternating points of view, all in present tense: Sharon, the mother; Jess, the sister; and Brian himself. While Sharon and Jess’s narratives sound like journal entries, Brian’s narrative is a transcript of his video-taping. In a desperate grab at his fading prospects, Brian determines to capture everything on film, creating a kind of time capsule that illuminates his hopes and dashed dreams.

As the book’s epigraph makes clear—“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”—Brian’s parents can’t refuse his return. While Sharon, his mother, desperately wants to welcome him, his aloof father hardly knows what to say. Jess, his fourteen-year-old sister, doesn’t know Brian has AIDs, but she knows something is very wrong. As they sit for supper with Brian on his first day home, she thinks,

We are in a dream. The three of us . . . watching him eat. The rain falling. The air heavy and fragile, like at a funeral. And, I guess that’s what it is, in a way. Because I think, for just a split second, that my brother has come back home to die.

Handsome and popular, Brian had been the star of his high school baseball team. Because he was poised and confident, a natural athlete, he eluded scrutiny among the jocks and gearheads. Nobody took note of his passionate interest in David Bowie, for example; nor did anyone take seriously his assertion that, as soon as he could, he’d get away from his dead-end town, described by Sharon as “a hardscrabble, forgotten place in the foothills of the Appalachians, about eighty miles from Columbus.”

Brian represents the so-called normal whose coming out shocks everyone as much as, say, a nice-guy neighbor who is revealed to be a serial killer. It’s a now-classic trope of such stories. Sickels complicates this portrait by revealing Jess as an outsider too, in her way. That is, her and Brian’s inclinations towards difference are familial, not idiosyncratic. Not a choice, in other words. Jess, says, “I only have a few friends. They’re benchwarmers, same as me. We aren’t popular but we don’t get pick on either–nobody notices us, thank God.” Passionate about killer whales, “the most misunderstood of the whales,” she wants to become a marine biologist, though she admits it’s a dim possibility. No doubt Brian had the kinds of misgivings she is now experiencing as she surveys the cultural landscape. After seeing Shamu, the famous killer whale, perform at Seaworld, she thinks, “I’d never seen something so perfect. But something about it bothered me too–a whale confined to a pool, taught to do tricks. . . . A whale needs to be in the ocean.” These thoughts about freedom versus confinement, performance versus natural expression, become her leitmotifs.

Sharon is the heart and soul of this narrative because her mixed emotions capture so well the dilemma that faced most parents of children with AIDS:

Some days, it’s like he’s come back from war or the dead. Like he’s missing a leg or an arm. I don’t know how to be around him. How to look at him, how not to. You can’t stop to think about it for too long, you have to keep going, because the moment you stop, you see the truth. There’s nothing you can do, or there is so much you should have already done.

Long-damaged by an uncaring mother, she’s anxious to be the loving mother she never had, but, at the same time, she finds herself losing her love of Travis, her husband, who seems incapable of accepting his now-changed son. At one point, Brian says, “I wonder what goes through his mind when he thinks of me, his only son. His queer son. If he has imagined what I do. On my knees, a cock in my mouth. If he thinks of me at all.” At first glance, Travis may appear the least redeemable of this ensemble: a shut-down, Vietnam vet who works for the local electric company. But–through Sharon’s eyes–we see his pain and, wisely, Sickels doesn’t let him go easily, surprising the reader (spoiler alert) with a final chapter from this father’s point of view.

Grandmother Lettie adores Brian and, fiercely protective of him, apprehends the truth of his return long before it comes out. An outsized character, full of bluster, enthusiasm, and hope, she plays a pivotal role in Brian’s ultimate reckoning, an end that even he can’t predict. Early in the novel, Sickels cagily plants two seemingly minor details that will contribute significantly to this later development of the story: the community pool and the local favorite TV show, On Location with Naomi. Sickels also captures vividly the 1980s zeitgeist: mixed tapes on Walkmans, The Brady Bunch, Jordache jeans, Duran Duran. We see, too, suffocating homophobic jokes and an implacable fear of change or difference among the townfolk. If some of this seems overly familiar, it has everything to do with the times and not the writer’s lack of imagination. Without looking hard or far, you’ll find rednecks and morons aplenty even now in America.

“The Prettiest Star” references an early love song (1970) by David Bowie. Upbeat but underscored with longing, it’s a fitting theme for Brian, a star himself among his go-nowhere high school chums. With great compassion and skill, Sickels uses Brian’s story to illuminate a very dark sky in America’s history, showing that though a lesser star may burn out too fast, its light–for a time–can be dazzling.