The Prettiest Star
by Carter Sickels
Hub City Press
Lambda Literary Award-winning author Carter Sickels pulls no punches in this unsparing and deeply felt novel that turns a sharp eye to American small-town prejudices in the mid-eighties. It’s not an unfeeling eye, however. We are led to a deeper understanding of what makes those small-town hearts hard and judgmental when faced with one of their own sons returning from the big city where he fled as a young gay man, a man who’s beaten and broken, but not cowed. Such attitudes were as wrong then as they are now, but many of the town’s denizens, particularly the young man’s family do find some redemption and eventually open their hearts.
Brian Jackson had been living in New York City for six years; it is 1986 now and he has recently lost many of his friends to the AIDS pandemic including the love of his life. Now ill himself, he pens a letter to his mother telling her that he’s gay, he has AIDS, and would like to return home. It’s not welcome news to his parents, especially his father. Their first concern is the reaction of those in their extended family and community, and they reluctantly agree as long his illness and sexuality are never spoken of. That, of course proves impossible, and the truth comes to the surface quickly. It’s not just a small town, it’s a very small town so close to where Ohio borders Kentucky that it is, for all intents and purposes, the South. God and family are everything and Brian finds himself at odds with both the church and his small-minded relatives.
Brian’s dreams of a peaceful death are thwarted by the often violent and vociferous reaction of the public, whose reaction to his illness is nothing less than panicked. Sickels weaves a story of loss and redemption with great skill, inhabiting all of his characters, even the least heroic, with a humanity they do not allow Brian. It’s ultimately a sad story, there’s no getting away from its conclusion, but we meet so many unforgettable characters along the way. As many fail Brian in his hour of need, there are a few who rise to the occasion. It’s those few that provide this novel with much of its heart. It would be too easy to just condemn the horrible and ignorant prejudices of that time, but if we are to understand them we stand a better chance of changing them. It’s the ultimate lesson Sickel teaches us and it’s an important one because as much as attitudes have changed, recent history has taught us that things haven’t changed for everyone everywhere. There are still battles to fight and if we can fight them with a portion of the grace and dignity Sickel’s protagonist does, we can win yet more.
—John Francis Leonard
John Francis Leonard writes the Bright Lights, Small City column for A&U.