Pink unicorns, Lisa Frank, blueberry scents, and punk rock epithets are friendly neighbors in this small book. No, it’s not the long-lost sticker collection forgotten in an old toy chest, on an abandoned bookshelf, or beneath the bed in one’s childhood bedroom. It’s Henry Hoke’s latest work of genius, Sticker, a hand-sized book of short essays that remind readers of times when neo-Nazis didn’t flood college town streets and video stores gainfully employed curious film studies graduates. Despite its cozy nostalgia for the good music, and better yet, even greater stickers of the 90s, Sticker houses twenty mini confessions, where one person’s experiences with economic privilege, ancestral violence, and parental disability collide with an academic city’s angry and racist history that keeps repeating itself.
At the center of Hoke’s book is one of the more recently infamous cities in America – Charlottesville, Virginia. Charlottesville became America’s center of attention, not because of its #5 rating in Livability’s 2018 Top 100 Places to Live list, but because of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 during which white nationalists protested the removal of Confederate statues. In multiple essays, Hoke carefully dissects Charlottesville’s racist history as well as his own, and he acknowledges, “As a white person in a land of white power, I had the privilege of forgetting the statues existed, could let them fade into the background, normalize.” He confirms that for the white nationalists gathering on those dark days in Charlottesville, the statues “were always beacons” and “when these beacons are threatened, their stewards descend with torches to relight.” However, at the same time Hoke critiques Charlottesville’s role in one of the most divisive rallies spawned by the Trump presidency, he subtly reveals Charlottesville’s sudden universality, as people all across the country recognize the city’s name as a “town full of people and problems” morphing into “a tragedy, a testing ground, an inevitability, a teacher.”
Sticker’s profoundness lies not only in the way Hoke portrays and reconciles with Charlottesville’s brutal history and present but also with the ancestral violence his lineage and inherited wealth carry. Hoke is the great-great-grandson of John H. Bankhead II. Bankhead, “during his tenure in the Alabama House of Representatives drafted election laws which included a series of tests and poll taxes designed specifically to disenfranchise newly eligible Black voters” and halted “the progress of their communities immeasurably.” This tainted inheritance combines with Hoke’s inherited economic privilege in the essay “Pink Circles,” a brief overview of Hoke’s short tenure as a not-so-disenfranchised film student. Hoke’s boss misinterprets Hoke’s desire to work endless hours in the video store and transform into the store’s “permanent fixture” and assumes Hoke’s life is an economic catastrophe. Instead, Hoke reveals to readers his introduction to “the extent of [his] generational wealth” in the form of checks, “dividends from a family partnership,” and “control of six-figure stock holdings.” This privilege sets Hoke apart from the vast majority of readers, and as much as Hoke tries to separate himself from Charlottesville, readers see through the veil, since Hoke is fortunate enough to be part of one of the city’s higher socioeconomic groups.
“Be Nice to Me I Gave Blood Today” is another stand-out in the collection and its hallmark is Hoke’s close relationship with his mother. Hoke confesses that the “Be Nice to Me I Gave Blood Today” sticker is the one sticker he doesn’t deserve to wear, that despite his mother’s pleas that he should give blood since blood donors saved her life after an accident, he can’t bring himself to do it. His reasons are many, at first stating, “My hypochondria had emerged with my facial hair.” Nonetheless, what Hoke eventually brings to the forefront for readers is the discrimination gay men faced in regards to giving blood: “From 1985-2015, there was a lifetime ban on donating – instituted by the FDA – for men who had sex with other men.” Simultaneously, as Hoke tells the story surrounding his mother’s disability and her response to the death of the woman who caused the accident, he analyzes the myriad of ways humans apologize, or don’t apologize, for their actions.
In “Parental Advisory Explicit Content,” readers see another facet of Hoke’s mother: a woman who sees beyond the stereotypes adults apply to teenagers as she overlooks an administrator’s criticisms of an album that goth teenage Hoke owns and instead encourages his identity experimentation. In this same essay, Hoke takes a critical look at the music industry’s glorification of sexual predators and Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center’s implementation of one of the most famous stickers in American history – the parental advisory warning. Hoke reflects on “The Antichrist” (his codename for Marilyn Manson) and The Antichrist’s rise to infamy and conservative, fundamentalist criticism. Hoke details how his algebra teacher, Mrs. God, confiscated a CD by The Antichrist left by Hoke’s friend on his desk. Months later, when Hoke’s mother and Hoke sit in an assistant principal’s meeting where the assistant principal informs Hoke’s mother her son will receive an academic excellence award, the assistant principal declares, “‘We’re so grateful to have students like Henry right now. You should have seen the awful thing that was brought into the office – have you seen this guy?” Hoke perfectly captures the situation’s irony as he writes, “After a long pause, I said, ‘That’s mine.’” Hoke’s mother transforms into a progressive ally who disregards the assistant principal’s judgments and “unfazed, said ‘Can he have it back?’”
With its examination of stickers, pop culture icons, and even the oft-forgotten days of video stores and cell phone-less times, Sticker is a trove of Millennial nostalgia. Its uniqueness lies not only in Hoke’s unabashed storytelling but also in its critical analysis of American current events and its brutal honesty about a city rooted in racism. In Sticker, Hoke’s Charlottesville morphs into a scrapbook, one where Hoke places many of the literal and metaphorical stickers significant to his past and his identity, one in which America memorializes some of its questionable, inhumane history and many of its darkest days. Possessing the evocative power of Melissa Faliveno’s Tomboyland, Hoke’s writing is blunt and honest, and Sticker is a collection worth keeping.
By Henry Hoke
Published January 13, 2022