This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Travis Mulhauser takes the style of southern rural noir and brings it to the snowy forests of northern Michigan in his debut novel Sweetgirl. The novel is set in fictional Cutler County, a close stand-in for Mulhauser’s native Petoskey, and Mulhauser does well to evoke the ragged beauty of the landscape, the hearty loneliness of its winters, and the feral glory of its year-round residents, the ones who are still there when the downstate tourists and their money go south when the cold weather sets in.
His novel follows Percy, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a drug addict mother who has a good heart but is unable to care for this teenage girl who needs her. Most of the time it’s Percy taking care of Carletta, her mother, rather than the other way around. When Carletta goes missing for days, Percy sets out in the face of an incoming blizzard to find her at the most likely place she’ll be–the backwoods den of Shelton Potter, a meth dealer of questionable intelligence and a fierce temper that earned him a year in prison after he almost killed a man who insulted him in a bar. Shelton’s uncle is the criminal leader of the local drug scene, but he deals in “respectable” vices like weed and cocaine, tolerating but not approving of Shelton’s meth business.
Percy sneaks into Shelton’s house and finds him and a young woman both out cold after crashing from a drug high, and she proceeds to search the home for her mother. She doesn’t find her, but she does find a baby girl, wide awake and screaming in the cold by an upstairs bedroom. The window is open and snow is blowing onto the poor infant. The teenager evaluates the situation and makes a quick decision to leave with the baby since it will almost certainly die if left behind with these two incapable and irresponsible adults. She sets out into the snow and walks for what seems like ages till she gets to the cabin of her only friend in these woods, Portis Dale, an alcoholic with a heart of gold. Portis dated Percy’s mom years ago, and he’s the closest thing she has to a father. Portis is prickly and gruff but agrees to try to help Percy get the baby to the hospital before the child’s severe diaper rashes get infected and produce an unrecoverable fever. They set off on foot in a blizzard for the ages. When Shelton finally comes to and discovers the baby is gone, he sets off in search and calls his similarly dimwitted and unscrupled cohorts to join the hunt. His uncle Rick is out of town and Shelton pretends Rick has offered a reward for the baby’s return, a promise he’ll worry about later if and when they find her.
Sweetgirl has a wonderful sense of atmosphere and place, using the Michigan landscape, the cold, the snow, and the disorienting effects of the storm to great effect in creating a new and fresh setting for what is essentially a pretty familiar tale, one that more than anything evokes Winter’s Bone, the 2006 novel by Daniel Woodrell that was adapted into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence in 2010. Mulhauser’s book is sure to be amply compared to Bone, and that’s not a bad thing. The rural noir genre has been straining under its own tired tropes recently, but Mulhauser’s book breathes fresh life into it with an original setting, a realistic teenage female protagonist, and a wry sense of humor often missing from these bleak stories.
“He closed his eyes and when he fired the load it was not an instrument of justice or redemption…but was only the truth expelled through a smooth-bore barrel, all buckshot and perspicuity.” – page 202
Maintaining the noir comparison, Mulhauser’s dialogue and his narration through Percy at points evoke the grim humor of the old hardboiled detective novels, and while this at times strains the credibility of the dialogue, it’s a welcome touch that keeps the book from feeling formulaic or tired. Mulhauser’s prose is strong and well-suited to the specific style and story he’s working with here, and it seems to be his sweet spot; Mulhauser’s 2005 short story collection Greetings from Cutler Countyworks with the same setting, and he has said in interviews he plans to continue to write in this fictional world based closely on his hometown.
“And that’s the problem with the winter in Cutler County–it’s not so much the cold, it’s the fact that at some point the ass kicking feels personal.” – page 16
While I obviously can’t reveal the details here, Mulhauser does his story and its main character a great service by patiently giving a good and satisfying ending. He avoids a bombastic climax, trusting in the novel’s tension and its well-placed scenes of action and allowing the story to play out to a believable and poignant conclusion. The entire novel is enjoyable, but the maturity of its resolution sets it apart from rural crime novels like it.