Before COVID-19, there was AIDS

‘The Prettiest Star’ recalls the toll on smalltown America of another epidemic

When an Appalachian town becomes the subject of a dramatic talk show segment in 1986, nearly every resident is watching when the host poses a loaded question. “What happens when a son comes back home, and he’s sick with the most feared disease of our time?” the woman asks. The “son” she refers to is a young man named Brian. The “home” is a small town in Ohio. The “feared disease” is AIDS.

The reporter's question succinctly captures the premise of "The Prettiest Star" by Carter Sickels, the Kentucky author of "The Evening Hour." Sickels' piercing new novel follows one man's experience from "the Before" stage of his life through hearing early rumors of something called "GRID" or "gay cancer," to contracting the disease himself and finally navigating tortured family relationships as he faces death.

There are a number of novels that explore the epidemic’s human toll, but they typically take place in big cities. Sickels wanted to highlight what happened when gay men returned to small American towns. The author was a teen in the ‘80s and remembers the fear and homophobia that pervaded society. An Oprah episode about an HIV+ gay man who was kicked out of a public swimming pool in West Virginia lodged in his brain, becoming the impetus for this book.

The protagonist, Brian, escapes the confines of his conservative hometown of Chester, Ohio, by moving to New York City when he’s 18. He finds love and happiness there, until his world begins to transform before his eyes. He witnesses the muscular men of the West Village turn into shriveled ghost-men. His beloved boyfriend dies. Eventually Brian becomes sick, too. Successful treatments wouldn’t come until decades later. At the age of 24, Brian leaves the tainted grittiness of the city to die in the bucolic setting of his youth.

This decision presents Brian with a different set of problems. He hasn’t talked to his father in years, his mother believes Brian abandoned the family to live a life of sin, and Chester is a place where the church youth group leader warns teens to “stay away from the homos.”

Once home, Brian tries to salvage his bond with his sister, Jess, who he used to lull to sleep with the David Bowie song that gives the book its title. His grandmother, Mamaw, always had a soft spot for him, so reconnecting with her is easy. Meanwhile, he has to abide by house rules that require he drink from a “special” cup and have his laundry washed separately. These orders appall his best friend, who comes to visit. She tries to schedule a doctor’s appointment for him, but no office will see him.

Brian’s parents keep his illness a secret, but gossip gets around. Then comes the day when Brian goes for a swim in the crowded community pool on a hot summer day. The pool manager tells him he “can’t be in there, infecting the water,” and the scene quickly escalates. The police are called, the mayor closes the pool to have it disinfected, and hate calls start pouring in. The incident makes front page news, as if it were “something big, like a murder or major drug bust.”

More than three decades after this story is set, ignorance about AIDS lingers still. In March, the Georgia House passed a bill updating the state’s HIV laws for the first time since the 1980s. One of the proposed changes strikes a penalty for assaulting officers by spitting on them, which is based on a scientific inaccuracy since HIV is not spread through saliva. Forty representatives voted to leave the laws alone, but the bill passed with bipartisan support. (It still has to go before the Senate and, if approved, get signed by the governor.)

The novel’s release coincides with a pandemic that, for some, has warranted comparison to the AIDS epidemic. When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency at a White House press conference in March, coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said the lessons learned during the HIV/AIDS response are informing the government’s actions today. These remarks were deemed inappropriate by some, given how little attention the Reagan administration initially paid to the HIV crisis. When Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for COVID-19, some people likened it to “a Rock Hudson moment.”

“The Prettiest Star” was written with great depth and emotion. Chapters are told from various family members’ first-person narratives that reveal poignant details such as Jess’ love of killer whales and the pain Brian’s mother feels on behalf of her son. “Fairy, queer, faggot. The cruel words drum against my chest.”

But Brian’s storyline is conveyed through deeply intimate personal video diary entries. Following his late lover’s directive to document everything so their lives won’t be forgotten, Brian’s words are spoken directly into a camcorder lens, intended for some unknown viewer after he’s gone. The effect is powerful. It essentially lets us watch without being able to console as Brian ruminates about deserving to die alone. We see him recall smelling the “the prickly scent of ozone” after a summer afternoon rainstorm while watching a ball game with his dad. And we’re privy to his poignant end-of-life reflections. “We live our lives not realizing which moments are special or which are ordinary,” he observes. “What will we remember, what memories will we try to grab onto, to hold close?”

Due to COVID-19, the publication of “The Prettiest Star” has been postponed until May 19.


Explore ‘The Prettiest Star’

By Carter Sickels

Hub City Press

304, $26