Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Ecco, February, 2016; 256 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
One of the many winning qualities of Percy James, the ballsy, large-hearted heroine of Travis Mulhauser’s Sweetgirl, is a knives-out sense of humor. A native of Cutler, Michigan- rustic tourist hamlet in fair weather, icy, snow-blown tundra that “will gnaw your goddamn toes off if you let it” in foul- Percy’s in a bind. She needs to recover her mother, a mid-relapse meth addict, from a local dealer’s den before an impending snow storm hits the area. She finds not her mother, but baby Jenna laying by an open window, snow blowing into her crib. Percy rescues Jenna and the dealer’s squad is soon in hot pursuit of both. Percy envisions the experience as an extreme sport for wealthy tourists: “I wish they had a website for such people. Rich folks with a bunch of crackpot energy…the adrenaline junkies could do something of actual value with their foolishness. I mean, why run through some mud you put there on purpose when you could come to Cutler and rescue a baby from the drug-ravaged farmhouse of a fucking lunatic?”
A bare-bones outline of the book’s plot may well conjure comparisons to Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. And while the two may share similar heroines of the solid, clear-eyed variety (the sturdy adolescent girl willing to go out into the world and take risks a great archetype to establish, by the way; if we are to see more of these heroines, we should damn well welcome them) Sweetgirl sets itself apart in its ultimate sense of redemption, an opening to the tenderness that resides in every individual. While Percy carries her own burdens – a longing for a family and a stability she does not have, for an easier life outside the constraints of poverty and need – she becomes an adult in how she sets those burdens aside to love and care for another human being.
Percy’s collaborator in these matters is Portis Dale, her mother’s long-ago ex and “the closest thing to a father I have.” Portis likes Warren Zevon and, after a brief run with meth, drinking: “a slower, more reasonably portioned suffering.” Portis becomes the book’s patron saint, a man of seemingly unforgivable edges changed by the events of the icestorm, and by Jenna. His banter with Percy is downright scintillating; one is compelled to think of that other Portis, Charles Portis, when caught by the dialogue, high-brow and low-down in much the same manner as True Grit and The Dog of the South. Portis to Percy, when she criticizes his ice-fishing skills: “I think you would make a fine prosecutor of the law, Percy James. I can see you now. One of those fire-breathers in a man suit, stomping around the courtroom and scaring everybody shitless with your short haircut and meanness.” The fire and finesse in prose also extends to Shelton Potter, the dimwitted nephew of the town drug lord, who maintains an astounding nitrous buzz throughout the book’s two hundred-plus pages as he searches for the trio. Shelton is equal parts miserable, hilarious, and deeply haunted: after a minor setback, “Shelton got back in the truck and gassed himself a balloon. It was time to refocus…Shelton wasn’t exactly sure what the next move was. Times like these made him doubt his abilities as a leader. He did a balloon, and then another. His head went wha-wha-wha.”
The perfect coming-of-age story is the one that, without sentiment, cuts its losses and finds the strength to take off on its own, in spite of crippling fear. Sweetgirl gives us a heroine with depth, who lives out this narrative in real, rewarding terms. Hers is a voice, and story, the reader will remember for a long time to come: “I can promise you no straighter path has ever been run,” Percy says of her journey at one point, “and while you could credit me with some triumph of balance, in truth I was just too damn afraid of falling.”