SweetgirlSweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
My rating: 4/5 cats
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this was pitched to me (by greg) as “a funny Winter’s Bone.”

and that’s a very good description, although “funny” is relative, and it’s more “funny used to offset otherwise horrible things” and “funny compared to other grit lit.”

but considering the plot of the story, it’s amazing there’s anything funny about it at all: a sixteen-year-old girl named percy james enters a known meth house looking for her relapsed mother carletta. she does not find her but she does find a dead dog, a live cat, two passed-out junkies, and a distressed baby girl by an open window needing to be changed and slowly being covered by snow. percy rescues the baby, taking off on foot into the worsening michigan blizzard, where she enlists the help of the kindly-gruff portis dale and his faithful wolfdog, resulting in the lot of them being pursued by criminals with guns.


but humor does find a way to manifest – in percy’s wry sardonic, occasionally overformal voice:

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.

in the friendly banter between percy and portis, who had once nearly become percy’s stepfather:

“It’s pretty, ” I said. “But I swear I am never coming back up on this hill.”

“This hill is cursed,” said Portis. “There isn’t a doubt.”

“You’re the one that lives here.”

“I don’t so much live as I do exist.”

“That’s deep.”

“I wish it were,” he said.

and in the straight-up slapstick of shelton potter’s storyline. shelton is the owner of the aforementioned meth house, and he returns to consciousness to find the baby gone and her mother still zonked out, blissfully unaware. shelton sets out to be the hero of his own story, but his frequent pauses to do nitrous, smoke pot, mourn his faithful dog old bo, and zone out in many drug-related lacunae make him less … efficient a champion.

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as far as the Winter’s Bone part, mulhauser is definitely showcasing that wonderful balance between lyrical and harsh that i so enjoy in woodrell’s prose:

Up ahead I watched as a swarm of chickadees broke from a jack pine, scattering tiny mists of snow as they searched out neighboring trees. And that’s the thing about Cutler – it’s a hard place, but sometimes it’s so damn pretty you don’t know what to do with it all.

and percy is a wonderfully clear-eyed protagonist in the same vein as w.b.‘s ree; a teenager who’s seen more and lived more and had to become more than most kids her age, someone who’s inherently good-hearted, but also resigned to certain realities:

We walked among the rows of graves, a bunch of cement headstones with some named etched in. Sorry plots that were not graced with the lamenting angels and Jesus statues that held court across the highway. In the end, you can’t even die your way out of being poor.

who is able to love her mother deeply but still see through her bullshit:

Carletta had a way of denying certain realities to make her life seem like more than it was, which was sort of like coping, but was mostly just another way to lie.

another great woodrelly skill he has is in the vividness of his landscape. ohhhhhhh, michigan. you are so cold! mulhauser is masterful at bringing this environment to life and making readers feel percy’s long trudge through the blizzard, feet freezing in boots, the weight of a baby curling her forward, the weight of her other worries dogging her every step. it’s perfect, and while i may be the only one jealous of such freezing surroundings here in my pathetic 72-degrees-on-christmas-eve-new-york “winter,” there’s no denying that his description of it is powerful and effective.

in a lot of ways this story is very familiar, at least to someone who reads *a lot* in this particular grit lit vein, but mulhauser brings his own spin to the meth and guns and backwoods justice template. female-driven grit lit is not uncommon, but it’s definitely less common, and i really appreciated percy’s authentic balance between competence and vulnerability. this isn’t the high moralistic tone of True Grit or the “fuck you and all your fuckery” badass tone of Young God; it’s in the middle, where it makes sense and where books like Winter’s Bone and the The Weight of Blood live.

so greg was right – it is funny. and touching. and also filled with horrible horrible things. and it gets bonus points for multiple warren zevon mentions. and for wolfdog and old bo. and all of it, really. points all around for another strong debut novel.

if you bothered to click on that link up top, just imagine that song playing at top volume over and over for days. don’t do meth, kids.

read my reviews on goodreads

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