To begin by saying that Carter Sickels is a good writer would denote enough aesthetic favoritism toward The Evening Hour to elicit an eye roll or a chuckle from someone who has never experienced this book. Therefore, I will not begin this post with, “Carter Sickels is a good writer.” Instead, I will say, “Carter Sickels is a good truth teller.” Yes, I think this is more appropriate. The term “good writer” is tossed about with wild abandon these days, especially when we consider how many writers force readers into a kind of linguistic victimhood as the readers are compelled to search deep into the OED simply to make sense of what the “good writer” has written. Carter Sickels surpasses this profuseness of pretty words; he sinks into a vein of something greater than simply being good at writing. He conjures an emotion and makes it live on the page. He is telling the truth with unflinching, plainspoken intelligence, and in this, he is unmatched by many contemporary writers.
I am thrilled by The Evening Hour‘s characters. Like the novel’s protagonist Cole Freeman, I grew up in a small town surrounded by dense forest and steeped heavily in the rituals of blue-collar American industry. I know these people well. They are my friends, my neighbors, and sometimes, my enemies. My mill town was not unlike Sickel’s coal town. A mill town is the kind of place one has only three options: work in the factories, go to college and work in the factories, or work the streets and go to jail and ultimately work in the factories. The Evening Hour captures the same claustrophobic sensation of overwhelming destiny with its ever-present, ever-exploding coal mine. Small towns are haunted places and Dove Creek is no exception.
Sickels distills the American working class community into its purest elements. He creates a place where people would collapse under the weight of their own nihilism and self-hatred without a spiritual foundation, and we must watch as they defer their faith into objects that they think are permanent and greater than human existence, such as Cole’s Grandfather believing the mountain is proof that God exists. He creates a place where the American dream has crumpled and sunk deep into the poisoned water gushing from every industrial fountainhead to taunt the youth with a cancerous future. If the media were ever to take interest in an industrial accident as the media does in the novel, the focus of all inquiry would be on the backward ways of the citizenry. His America is so far removed from a middle-class delusion that you would never see it depicted on a postcard or in an advertisement. These are the men and women who make the steamroller that is American exceptionalism possible—drug addicted, cancer eaten, and killing themselves to live. Therefore, when I say Carter Sickels is a truth teller, you may get the impression I recognize the face of Dove Creek. However, instead of discounting The Evening Hour as another autopsy of the American underclass, I find it to be almost a celebration. Out of all the wretchedness, there is hope that there is a writer out there who is finally getting to the point of it all. Sickel’s novel is an exploration of how the ennui of poverty might be diminished, if not totally demolished, through the kindness of a single person such as his protagonist Cole—stealing from the sick to give to the poor, a Robin Hood for the demented, delirious, and damned.
I have inside knowledge about Carter Sickel’s next project. Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, the forthcoming anthology from Ooligan Press, is compiled and edited by Carter Sickels and begins, most fittingly, with a superb essay by him. He continues to write the truth as America takes its first steps toward social and legal equanimity and fulfills its promise of equal protection under the law. Untangling the Knot is “one more step toward the conversation we must have” about gay rights. Like I said, he is a good truth teller.