cover image Sweetgirl


Travis Mulhauser. Ecco, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-240082-6

When plucky 16-year-old Percy James discovers that her feckless mother, Carletta, is missing from their shabby home in a decaying town at the northwest tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, she jumps in her pickup truck and sets off during a blizzard to look for Carletta at the drug den of Shelton Potter, a maker and dealer of methamphetamine. Carletta is not there, and Shelton and his girlfriend are conked out, but Percy finds a baby girl crying in a freezing-cold bedroom and impulsively grabs her, determined to get the baby to a hospital. Percy enlists the help of her mother’s ex-boyfriend, Portis Dale, a gentlemanly alcoholic who greets her by saying, fondly, “Well, shit the bed.” This event-filled debut novel then alternates between Percy’s desperate attempts to elude a vengeful Shelton, and Shelton’s own slow-witted ruminations as he mumbles around the snow-filled woods with his trusty Glock pistol. By the time Carletta shows up and the baby is succored, four men have died: by incineration, by a gun mistakenly fired, by suicide, and by running a snowmobile into a tree. To his credit, Mulhauser evocatively describes the bleak landscape and starkly degraded social mores of an isolated community after the tourists have departed. The novel’s credibility suffers, however, from the far too clever and unlikely dialogue spoken by unsavory characters as they consume a prodigious amount of whiskey. A virtually illiterate “scumbag” mutters, “It’s an academic point”; another character, who has never left the remote backwoods, refuses to become “one of those pieces of human installation art.” Yet the novel succeeds as a coming-of-age story when Percy, having survived grisly violence and abysmal loss, experiences a realization about how to shape her future. (Feb.)