Reviewed by Charlie Klenk
The lifespan of a sticker can range from a few moments to a few years- some just don’t seem to ever stick to anything and some need to be peeled off with a straight razor thirty years later. Henry Hoke’s memoir-in-stories explores the presence of twenty near-permanent stickers in his life, chronicling a childhood spent in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia through the lens of a young, queer child, then an older, queer adult. Told in episodic format using various stickers that appeared over the course of his life, Sticker introduces us to the images that have decorated his life: the sparkling Lisa Frank Unicorn that marks the first time he heard the word gay, the Be Nice to Me I Gave Blood Today sticker that chronicles his struggles as a queer adult, the Are You Triggered? stickers stuck to a truck speeding through his city. Throughout the litany of stickers, Hoke shows us a portrait of his city leading up to the day in which an attack by a white supremacist killed one and injured 35 others.
We begin the memoir not with the introduction, as Hoke is kind enough to tell us that the story which comes seventh in the book is the real introduction, but with a piece entitled “Mr. Yuk.” Mr. Yuk is a character created by a physician in the late 1960s and early 70s designed to help children identify which substances can potentially be poisonous to them if ingested. Bright green, with an expression that implies he’s about to be sick, Mr. Yuk is meant to be unpleasant, a visual warning that even young children will instinctively know to stay away from. Hoke, by contrast, describes the figure as his first crush- using him to introduce both his queerness that will feature heavily throughout the memoir and the feeling of danger drawing closer that underpins the entirety of the rest of the work.
The next few essays in the memoir, “Unicorn,” “Wahoowa,” and “Gold Star,” serve mostly to fill out the climate of the world around both the young Hoke and the adult man navigating the world after the August 12th attack. “Gold Star” is notable for the commentary it provides on modern education, speaking on the ways the distribution of these ruined education and taught children to seek- not to learn, but to desire to acquire in the hope of a reward. “We learned lack. This wasn’t a childhood anymore, but a burgeoning assessment. A competition that would never end” (11). Readers in the know will also enjoy the subversion of their expectations, as those up to date with their LGBTQ+ terminology will recognize that ‘gold star gay’ is slang for a gay person who has never slept with, or been in a relationship with, a member of the opposite gender. With this knowledge, you sit through the entirety of the story expecting commentary on the merits and demerits of this label; in the process, you end up with a commentary on the usefulness of ‘gold stars’ as a whole, both in education and community settings.
“Constellation,” “Death to the Pixies,” and “Be Nice to Me I Gave Blood Today” all share a rhetorical device that Hoke makes frequent use of throughout the memoir-in-stories, listing large chunks of repetitive phrases to emphasize his point. Constellation uses it to outline the person his younger brother became as he grew, while also showing Hoke’s attitude towards him: the repetition is a list of things his brother is better at than Hoke is. Some of the items here are undesirable- being “better at drugs,” (30) for example, but there is a layer of love that rests atop all entries. By contrast, “Death to the Pixies” features a list of all the notable features of Charlottesville Hoke sees as he drives through the town. These are nearly all negative, mentions of where pedophiles live and suicide happened, a portrait of a city being eaten alive by the people who live inside it.
The return to a happier kind of list in “Be Nice to Me I Gave Blood Today” stands in stark contrast to the one in “Death to the Pixies.” Here Hoke lists the things that a scratch-and-sniff sticker of him and his mother would smell like; the list comes in a moment where he feels disconnected from her and guilty for never giving blood as she’d always urged him to, but it is still a list born out of love and the people they are together. “…it’d smell like ivy in the yard, like an artificial fireplace, like microwave nachos, like dehumidifiers, like Mentholatum, like fever dreams where our hands are too big to hold our little books…” (107) The negatives here on the list, though numerous, are a return to the kinds of things Hoke believes his brother to be better at than he is. Together, sandwiching the portrait of a burning, crumbling city we’ve been given in “Death to the Pixies,” the effect is one that reminds the reader of the people inhabiting this land they’re all hearing about on the news.
The most impactful piece of the memoir comes last, titled “HH” and set just before and just after the August 12th attack. This story is the one we’ve been building to throughout the memoir, each successive sticker placed in our path to reveal the next lurking underneath. HH, which stands for Hilton Head and is meant before this attack to signify which beach someone prefers to go to, comes for Hoke to represent the initials of the woman who lost her life that day. Hoke calls out the tendency to place white supremacism “elsewhere” (122), challenging the pattern for those who were not present to want to use tragedies like these as shields. All that happened on August 12th was the sticker being peeled away from the city: now we pick at the sticky residue left behind and find that we are unable to remove it from sight.
Sticker succeeds in its central metaphor, highlighting through mundane, everyday objects how commonplace this attack could be if the country continues on its current trajectory. While there are a few entries in the memoir that are less successful than the rest- “Fire Dancer” seems wholly uninterested in its subject and added merely because Hoke felt obligated to; “Pink Circle” is an interesting portrait of Hoke’s love for video stores but is ultimately mostly irrelevant to the rest of the collection- the work as a whole offers a unique perspective on both a specific tragedy in US history and on the circumstances that came together to allow it to happen. Hoke’s writing is sparse, every word chosen to do precisely what he needs it to, and the effect allows the reader to fill in the blanks themselves. He challenges us to see the stickers around us in our everyday lives, and to think about what might be lurking beneath them.