Carletta James is missing again. This isn’t exactly a surprise to her 16 year old daughter Percy. Carletta is a meth addict whose knack for surviving things she shouldn’t is unparalleled. This time, though, Percy is worried. A winter storm of biblical proportions is bearing down on Cutler County, Michigan, and it’s one a strung out Carletta may not even survive. When a friend tells her that her mother is at Shelton Potter’s cabin, Percy knows she has to go fetch her. She also knows that Shelton is an ex-convict and Cutler’s local meth dealer, with a notoriously bad temper to boot. Shoving her fear aside, she braves the weather and arrives at Shelton’s sad excuse for shelter. She’s shocked by what she finds and it’s certainly not what she expected. There’s a rotting dog carcass, two unresponsive adults, and a snow covered baby. Percy does the only thing she can think of, she takes the baby and crosses the hellish woods to an old family friend’s cabin. Portis takes her in, and after his initial horror, falls for the baby Jenna too. The road the three of them embark on is dangerous, cruel, and unpredictable.
Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser is hard to define. It’s not quite a thriller, it’s not quite a mystery, but yet it has elements of both. Regardless, it doesn’t have to be any one thing to be amazing – and it is. Sweetgirl is grim and downtrodden, but full of unexpected humor as well. While I may have read another review that criticized the dialogue, I loved it. There’s a needed wry humor running throughout the novel – and most of it is found where you’d least expect it – in Percy*, Portis, and Shelton.
While the particulars of a given calamity may be impossible to predict, while I could never say I expected to find a baby in the bedroom, chaos itself was always confirmation of the dread I carried certain in my bones.
Mulhauser creates complex characters, particularly in Shelton. While he clearly is a villain, he’s treated with a certain amount of understanding and the realistic abilities of a meth addict. I equally enjoyed the depth of both Percy and Portis. There is a certain beauty in the world Mulhauser created, it’s bitter, frigid, and bleak, but it’s not without a certain amount of hope. He created a story I loved, yet it’s incredibly violent and harsh. That’s a fine line to walk – or write, as the case may be – and he did so admirably.
With humor to balance the despair and hope to balance the sorrow, Sweetgirl is a novel I’ll be recommending to just about everyone, but especially those who enjoy grit lit. It’s reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, and Frank Bill, with just little bit of early Richard Russo – which, in short, makes it a wonderful book. Read it, you won’t be sorry.
*If you’ve ever watch the phenomenal Justified, Percy is reminiscent of a northern born Loretta.