Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star imagines a difficult prodigal son homecoming. It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson has returned to his small southern Ohio hometown. Six years before, Brian left home for New York City, where he found friends, a measure of acceptance and love with his partner, Shawn. Now Brian is 24 and ill with late-stage AIDS. He’s also alone; Shawn has already died, isolated in a hospital ward.
Brian’s family doesn’t know—or rather, they’ve chosen not to accept—that he is gay. The novel rotates through the first-person perspectives of Brian; his mom, Sharon; and his 14-year-old sister, Jess. Sharon is paralyzed, unable to figure out how to be a parent to Brian and remain a wife to Travis, who pretends that his son isn’t gay and isn’t sick. Observant Jess, who shares with her brother a love of whales and David Bowie songs, struggles to find her place in this changed world. And Brian narrates through a series of video recordings from the camera he carries with him, as Shawn asked, so those who die of AIDS won’t be forgotten.
Soon, word of Brian’s return, along with the suspicion that he has AIDS, gets around town. Friends, strangers and their own extended family begin to shun Brian, Sharon, Travis and Jess, often in overtly hateful ways.
Sickels does an excellent job showing the mix of panic, homophobia and bullying that AIDS once engendered. He also evokes the mid-1980s and rural small-town life with the right amount of period and place detail. Brian’s narration occasionally feels too composed and lyrical for a 24-year-old man talking into a camera, but that’s a small quibble.
While the story is bleak, it moves along at a clip, offering some surprises and a couple of unlikely, brave heroes. The Prettiest Star is a sensitive portrayal of a difficult time in our recent history.