Travis Mulhauser’s novel first caught my eye on Twitter last year thanks to a quote from Ron Rash who seemed to think it well worth a read. Rash belongs to that stripped-down school of writers whose names always snag my attention. Set in blizzard-swept Michigan, Sweetgirl certainly lived up to his ‘gritty, compelling’ billing but what I hadn’t expected was a hefty dollop of black comedy.
Sixteen-year-old Percy’s mother has been missing for nine days. Percy has an idea where she might be, and heads off through the snow in her pick-up for Shelton Potter’s farmhouse where he cooks up methamphetamine for the locals. There she finds Shelton and a woman passed out on the floor, the place stinking and dishevelled. Creeping around the farmhouse looking for Carletta she stumbles upon a baby, her face lightly covered in snow from an open window. Percy instinctively picks her up, calming the child’s distress and taking her off to the only safe place she knows: Portis Dale’s, the closest to a father she’s ever had. When Shelton comes to, the first thing on his mind is to persuade the unconscious Kayla to get rid of his beloved dog’s corpse and clean up the house. Once upstairs he discovers the baby has gone. What to do? Far from the sharpest tool in the box, Shelton flounders about coming up with ever more ludicrous explanations for Jenna’s disappearance before ringing his Uncle Rick’s henchmen and dangling a reward in front of them then setting off to search for her, taking the time to admire himself in his new snowmobile outfit before he does so. What follows is a suitably nail-biting race against time and the long forecast blizzard as Percy and Portis try to get Jenna to the hospital with Shelton and co. on their trail.
I finished off my last review hoping for an Ang Lee adaptation of Thomas Savage’s cinematic The Power of the Dog. Sweetgirl is equally ripe for a screenplay but this time it feels like Shelton and his motley, clownish crew have walked straight out of a Coen brothers’ movie. Shelton could easily have become a caricature, if ridiculous, villain but Mulhauser keeps him human, allowing him a few shreds of decency as he does with Carletta who loves both Percy and her older sister but is rarely sober enough to have been a mother to them. The hilarity of Shelton and his sidekicks with their casual, backfiring violence may be almost slapstick but the novel’s deadly serious theme is clear as Percy tries to save Jenna from the same trap she’s found herself in. Not quite what I was expecting, then, but well worth reading and the ending’s everything you could hope for.