SEPTEMBER 12, 2020
GROWING UP QUEER in Appalachia, home has never been a simple matter. Even after living in New York for nearly a decade, I still bristle when a stranger innocently asks, “Where are you from?” knowing the answer will be met with assumptions ranging from the ignorant yet benign to the more viciously stereotypical: “But where’s your accent?” “You’re so articulate!” “Did you wear shoes growing up?”
As much as I’m sometimes tempted to lie about where I’m from, I’m also aware that the truth about where my home is will always be partial. Yes, I was born in a place I can pinpoint on a map: a town of about 7,000 residents in rural Kentucky. And yes, I can zoom in on Google Earth to acres of farmland surrounding the house I was raised in. From there, I can trace a winding road that snakes into the parking lot of an evangelical church where I spent most of my childhood. But for obvious reasons, I never felt I belonged, never felt at home there — or anywhere, really. Though I’ve learned to hide it well, the acute sting of otherness follows me wherever I go.
Perhaps this is why I was drawn to Carter Sickels’s sophomore novel, The Prettiest Star. Set in Chester, Ohio, a town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the story centers on Brian Jackson, a 24-year-old gay man who has just returned home after six years living in New York. It’s 1986, and Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS-related illness has forced a national conversation about an unspeakable plague into living rooms all across the United States.
Brian has just lost his boyfriend, Shawn, along with a growing number of his friends to the epidemic, and he has recently learned of his own seroconversion. “A couple months ago, a fever consumed him, a crackling in his lungs,” we learn from the omniscient narrator in the first chapter. His best friend and roommate, Annie, accompanies him to the hospital, where “he thought he wouldn’t come back out. The doctor barely spoke to him — another faggot taking up bed space.”
In a haunting passage that eerily echoes our present moment, the narrator also announces: “The last two weeks of Shawn’s life were a blur, but also creaked by painfully. He had a tube shoved down his throat. He died in the hospital, alone.” Before his death, Shawn leaves Brian with one parting request: “Record everything.”
So, Brian wanders the streets of the West Village with a camcorder propped on his shoulder, sifting through a “[c]ity of ashes, city of bones.” When he reaches the West Side piers by the Hudson River, a site once overcrowded with young men cruising for sex, he contemplates hurling himself into the cold, dirty water. He imagines sinking to the bottom, letting the current wash his body away, a body that he knows will soon succumb to the ravages of disease. But something stops him:
He was thinking of the place he left behind. His grandmother, his little sister. He was thinking of green hills and the clean smell of baseball fields and the light-filled woods on a summer day. His mother. His father, who he had not spoken to in years. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t afraid. […] He couldn’t jump. He couldn’t let go.
In other words, Brian is homesick. He decides to write a coming out letter to his mother in which he divulges the truth about his diagnosis — a letter she ignores. Meanwhile, the city becomes more unbearable by the day, a monument to looming death, a constant reminder of his absent lover. He boards a Greyhound bus bound for Ohio, after which the novel splits into chapters narrated in the first person by three characters: Brian; his younger sister, Jess; and his mother, Sharon. The multiple perspectives create a mosaic of experiences that are sometimes funny, though more often heartbreaking, adding layers of psychological texture as readers witness the same events filtered through different eyes.
In the chapter where we first meet Sharon, she works through her complicated feelings of missing Brian and wanting him home, while also navigating her fear of what her son’s return will mean for the family. Brian’s father insists that they keep everything a secret. He forces Brian to eat off a different set of plates and silverware, and Sharon complies. “He turned his back on his family to live a life of sin and now he’s sick because of it,” she thinks. His sister, Jess, is happy to have her big brother home, but increasingly becomes the target of school bullies and prying neighbors, creating mounting tension in their relationship. Apart from a cast of characters who later form Brian’s chosen family and caregivers, his grandmother is his only loyal defender throughout the novel, offering her home as a respite from the overwhelming prejudices of the outside world.
The concept of homesickness is thought to have arrived in English in the 18th century through the Swiss German colloquialism Heimweh (literally meaning “home” and “woe”). Swiss mercenaries used the word to describe a malady in which they experienced an intense, painful longing for the mountains of their homeland. Sickels inverts this idea by locating the return home as the source of his characters’ malaise. For Brian, home is a site of sickness in a double sense: as the physical manifestation of his disease progresses, the social illness of his community’s homophobia metastasizes.
Soon after returning home to Ohio, news of Brian’s status spreads throughout his community in the way that gossip is transmitted in small towns everywhere: first from his uncle, who divulges the secret to his wife, who then tells the local pastor. As a result, Brian’s family receives a deluge of threats: incessant phone calls, graffiti on their garage door, a bullet hole through the windshield of their truck. When Brian attempts to swim in the public pool, cops escort him out to the sound of cheering crowds. The only sit-down restaurant in town refuses to serve him. Someone throws an icy soda in his face. Life at home becomes untenable for Brian and his family, and he wonders why he returned in the first place.
His only refuge is his camcorder, where he creates a video journal chronicling the last months of his life, a final act of defiance. In the basement of his parents’ house, he looks directly into the camera one night and confesses:
Sometimes I burn with anger, and I want to fight, to be seen. But most of the time, I’m just scared or tired. On my worst days, I feel the shame most of the world wants me to feel. I understand why my parents don’t want people to know, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fucking hurt.
In her latest collection of essays, Feel Free, Zadie Smith writes that “however many books and movies and songs declaim the wholesome beauty of family life, the truth is ‘the family’ is always an event of some violence” — a fact Sickels’s novel makes abundantly clear. “It’s only years later,” Smith argues, “in that retrospective swirl, that you work out who was hurt, in what way, and how badly.” Although home may be elusive for characters like Brian, and for many queer people from Appalachia and elsewhere, there is solace to be found in the shelter of retrospection. In the absence of reconciliation or justice, what else do we have?
There is no blueprint for the architecture of queer communities, no singular way to form our chosen families. Home for queer people, as the sociologist Anne-Marie Fortier argues, “is not an origin but rather a destination” — thus, “there is no return, only arrival.” We are tasked with constructing new ways of being, of feeling, of relating to one another, out of the material of the possible, laying the foundation for a new home over the driftwood of our past. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for. Maybe that’s enough.
Last year, like Brian, I returned to my hometown after an extended hiatus to attend my little sister’s wedding. Sometime before that trip, I sent my mother a coming out letter in hopes of breaking the shroud of silence hanging over us for decades. I concluded the letter by writing, “I hope we can start having the important conversations that need to happen in order to move forward and get to some sort of reconciliation.” And like Brian’s mother, she never replied.
When I saw my mother at the wedding, we embraced and stared into each other’s eyes for a brief moment. Searching the hazel green irises we share, I could detect pain and a longing to bridge the gap formed by years of separation. But there was also something else there: a hint of joy, of mutual understanding, of genuine love. The wedding took place in an upscale event space in downtown Lexington, an hour’s drive from our hometown and the closest city to us growing up. I thought of the gay nightclub that had once existed just a few blocks from where we were standing, of the time I snuck in as a high schooler and made out with a muscular shirtless man in a bathroom stall. I thought of the queer desires ignited within me that night, of how I knew from that moment on I would never be able to fit back into the box of my mother’s — of the world’s — expectations. I wanted to share these stories, to laugh together about my youthful rebelliousness, but instead we just stood there, basking silently in the late summer heat.
In a recent virtual event on his promotional tour, Sickels discussed how one of the goals of The Prettiest Star was to shed light on how homophobia can operate within families, not necessarily as outright disowning or physical violence, but as a low simmering refusal to recognize a child’s queerness, and how the long-term effects of such an erasure is also a type of violence. As I listened to Sickels speak, I felt a familiar pang of recognition. Once again, I thought about my mother. I suppose one letter cannot repair a relationship strained beyond its limits. And yet, maybe this is what reconciliation looks like: shedding light on a novel that feels intimately important to people like me. By writing this review — like Brian with his camcorder, like Sickels with his novel — I’m forcing myself into the archive, refusing to be ignored, refusing to be forgotten.
Carter Sickels has not been afforded the same type of mainstream success as other contemporary queer writers like Garth Greenwell and Carmen Maria Machado. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he is transgender and writes about a region that the majority of the literary establishment looks down upon, if they consider its existence at all. However, this novel deserves a place in the canon of AIDS literature alongside the likes of Larry Kramer and, more recently, Rebecca Makkai — a straight cis woman whose novel about AIDS in 1980s Chicago, The Great Believers, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year. Writing for The New York Times, Michael Cunningham went so far as to claim “‘The Great Believers’ is, as far as I know, among the first novels to chronicle the AIDS epidemic from its initial outbreak to the present” — leaving one to wonder how many novels by queer authors he has actually read. Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History, Tim Murphy’s Christodora, and Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony are but a few examples that come to mind.
The Prettiest Star is a novel by a queer author about queer lives, and thus may be overlooked by a wider audience and critics. However, the book is also about more universal themes of family, reconciliation, and survival. It serves as a reminder to the world that our stories matter — that despite all odds, we are still here. It gave me a sense of comfort, of familiarity, of knowing that there’s a place for queer stories like mine. With this novel, Sickels has offered readers the queer homecoming we never had — homecoming as arrival rather than return.
Zach Shultz is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Huffington Post, TheGay & Lesbian Review/Worldwide, and more. You can follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.