Sweetgirl - Travis Mulhauser

Sweetgirl - Travis Mulhauser ****

There's a very troubling situation described in Travis Mulhauser's Sweetgirl. It doesn't start from the most promising of places, it continues to progressively decline over its relatively short length and it ends badly for most of those concerned. Fortunately, the author has a wonderful direct and deadpan style that balances the tension with some black humour, but there's more to it than that. Despite taking place in the coldest of places with the meanest of characters, there's a surprising human warmth at its heart, and it makes all the difference.

It helps that the main character is one you're rooting for, even if it's hard to pin down just exactly what makes 16 year old Percy tick. Her intentions at least are clearly well-meaning even if her actions lead to the an unforeseen amount of horror and destruction. She's out looking for her mother Carletta, a junkie who has fallen off the wagon again. As far as Percy can tell, her mother is likely to be found around the place of Shelton Potter, the local drug dealer and meth manufacturer. Trouble is it's January and Percy has had to set out during one of the worst blizzards to hit north Michigan for some time.

The scene the young girl finds at Shelton's place isn't a good one. Shelton and his girlfriend are whacked out on drugs, and a quick search of the house doesn't turn up her mother but instead a dead dog and 6-month old baby left by an open window and likely to die soon of hypothermia. Percy makes a decision to rescue the baby and take it to the only friend she knows who might help, but the conditions for travelling in the worsening storm anywhere are hazardous. Not only that, but when Shelton comes around and discovers that the baby is missing, he's prepared to go to drastic lengths to find her before the mother awakens, but probably not in the best state to think it through all that clearly.

In outline that sounds like a simple enough situation, and it's followed through to its likely outcome with a grim inevitability that puts one in mind of 'Fargo'. As bleak as the situation gets, the writing of these characters and the dialogue between them is a joy. There's a fair amount of frustration, niggling arguments and cognitive dissonance between junkies, a healthy dose of sarcasm and some ice-cold black humour in the Darwin Award winning stupidity exhibited here. If it were just the stock Coen Brothers/Tarantino characters involved it would be entertaining enough, even if you'd find it hard to care really what happens to them, but Mulhauser rather surprisingly finds a more touching human side in Sweetgirl.

If the situation reminds you of 'Fargo', there's a Holden Caulfield-like innocence to Percy that offsets the madness with a 'Catcher in the Rye' sensibility. As the world goes to hell in a handcart, Percy's response to the dangers faced by little baby Jenna is like a shot of pure raw emotion, the comic mayhem only intensified by the heart-tugging jag of genuine fear that spikes up every now and again. It's all the more poignant since Percy herself clearly has no role models to follow as far as family relations are concerned. It's the question of family that grows in importance as the story continues - even for Shelton - and it brings about a conclusion that for all its Tarantino-esque violence, has a rare beauty about it.

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Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser is published by 4th Estate on 11 February 2016.