REVIEWED BY STEVE CUSHMAN
Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser | Ecco Books, 2016 | ISBN: 9780062400840 | 240 pages
Travis Mulhauser’s debut novel, Sweetgirl, deals with drug addiction, awful parenting, honesty, hope, and ultimately the way in which good can overcome evil. Yes, that’s a lot to tackle in a first novel, but Mulhauser handles it with the care and ease of an accomplished writer.
Sweetgirl is the story of 16-year-old Percy James who goes looking for her drug-addict mother, Carletta, in the middle of a Michigan snowstorm. This is not the first time Carletta has left her daughter, and you get the feeling it won’t be the last either. After a tip from a friend, Percy heads to local meth cooker and dealer Shelton Potter’s house.
While she doesn’t find her mother at Potter’s house, she finds Shelton and his girlfriend passed out. Upstairs, there’s a dead dog and a baby girl, and Percy’s decision to rescue the girl is what propels the novel forward. Along the way she will have to face this menacing snowstorm, face Potter’s constant pursuit, face the want of her own failed mother, and perhaps most importantly, she will have to face her own life and future.
Percy finds help in the form of one of her mother’s ex-boyfriends, Portis Dale, who lives in a shack not too far from Shelton. At first he’s not particularly happy to see Percy and the baby, but he becomes a pivotal character.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Mulhauser crafts his multi-dimensional characters. Percy is a whip-smart high school drop out, working at a furniture repair shop, destined for so much more. Portis is more than a man who spends his days drinking and fishing. Even Shelton, the drug dealer and rather proficient mess maker, becomes, if not a sympathetic character, a character who is alive and unforgettable on the page.
This novel is one part thriller, one part coming of age story as Percy, still a child herself, is forced to pursue hope for this found baby, the sort of hope she herself has never experienced because of her mother’s failings. But the novel is also funny and sad and smart on many levels, as Shelton travels this desolate land of Cutler County, Michigan, propelled forward by nitrous hits and the wrongs he feels have been perpetrated against him.
If you’re a fan of rough south literature in the vein of Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash, or Larry Brown, then this novel is right up your alley. In fact, reading Sweetgirl reminded me of reading one of my favorite writers, Larry Brown, for the first time over twenty years ago and how I became engrossed in his characters, like a series of car wrecks you can’t turn away from.
Even if you’re not a fan of these writers but love rooting for a character with heart and grace and strength beyond her current situation, then this is the novel for you.
One aspect of the novel some reviewers may have issue with is the use of elevated language by some of these characters, particularly Portis. These are not characters that say ain’t and huh, but instead “I’m not skilled in the area of infant care.” Or “I am well known across three counties for my expertise and skill as a fisherman and have likely slain more steelhead than any man you have ever met personally in the flesh.”
This caught me at first, but in the end makes the characters believable, pushes them past the confines of their situation, and makes them more whole for me as a reader.
The book is told from Percy’s and Shelton’s points of view as the pursuit begins and Percy flees, fighting to keep this baby alive. Without giving too much away, I will say the ending offers hope in the sense that we hope Percy will make it, even though as this fine debut novel shows us, the good guy doesn’t always win.
Mulhauser graduated from UNC-Greensboro’s MFA program and has taught at UNC-Greensboro, Johnston Community College, and most recently NC State, but you can tell northern Michigan, where the novel is set, is his home. As Percy says, “That’s the thing about Cutler (this fictional county)—it’s a hard place, but sometimes it’s so pretty you don’t know what to do with it all.” You can’t help feeling this is how the author feels too.
This is a wonderful and heartbreaking debut novel, satisfying on so many levels, but also lovely in what it promises us readers, from this talented writer in the years to come.
Steve Cushman has published two novels, Portisville and Heart With Joy, as well as the short story collection, Fracture City. He has also published two poetry chapbooks, Hospital Work and MidnightStroll. A new novel, Hopscotch, is due out in May 2017.