In his first novel, Travis Mulhauser tells a page-turning adventure with moments of violence and comedy as a 16-year-old girl searches for her missing junkie mother.
Mulhauser lives in Durham and was educated at UNC Greensboro, but he was born and raised in Michigan. So it’s not surprising that he sets this adventure in the hills of that state’s lower peninsula. His “Sweetgirl” owes a good deal to Charles Portis, who wrote the comic-western novel “True Grit.” Mulhauser tells a similar story, but set in the present day: A precocious teenage girl on a mission is assisted by a lovable but grouchy, whiskey-drinking sidekick named Portis Dale, and pitted against a pack of villains.
It’s the middle of January, there’s a snowstorm coming, and Percy’s wayward Mama has been missing for nine days. So, Percy, the “Sweetgirl” and heroine of Mulhauser’s story, takes time off her job at the furniture store to find her. Percy’s heard that Mama, who Percy sometime calls Carletta, has taken up with that drug-crazed moron Shelton Potter, a parolee, who cooks, uses and sells methamphetamines. When he’s not puffing meth, crack or smoking pot, Shelton inhales nitrous oxide as a good, hallucinogenic change of pace. “There was more to life than methamphetamines,” he figures.
Percy finds Shelton and his girlfriend Kayla passed out on the living room floor of Shelton’s farmhouse; a dead dog decays upstairs. Percy also finds an undernourished, sick infant named Jenna, Kayla’s child. Percy rescues the baby, who she calls her “Sweetgirl,” as Carletta called her.
Her truck stuck in a drift, Percy trudges through the snow to Portis’ cabin for help. Portis, the closest thing she’s had to a father, once had a thing for Carletta.
Portis sometimes seems “old and sour at the world,” but most of the time he’s a lovable rogue, like “True Grit’s” one-eyed sheriff. But Mulhauser’s Portis is younger, with one good eye and a squinty, partially shut one.
Portis tells Percy, “Your mother’s just off somewhere stoned. Like always.” And he’s none too happy about the baby. He assures Percy that Shelton and his lunatic friends will come for the child. Meantime, Shelton lies to his friends, each a nitwit in his own right, and claims his uncle promises a $5,000 reward for the baby’s return. Still looking for Carletta, Percy, Jenna and Portis, who carries a rifle, take off and skirmish with Shelton and his ilk, each armed with pistols, shotguns and explosives.
Percy narrates most of this story, sounding for the most part like a gritty, plainspoken 16-year-old. She says things like “at some point the ass kicking feels personal” and “I thought of how bad skinny she’d looked in her diaper.” So, it’s quite a jolt when that same voice says, “Crisis is a constant when …” and later in that paragraph worsens the problem with, “While the particulars of a given calamity may be impossible to predict.”
But those lapses are infrequent. Mulhauser makes the wise decision to tell Shelton’s part of the story using an anonymous third person, since it would be tricky to write, and even harder to read, the first-person ramblings of a true nit.
To each character’s viewpoint, Mulhauser adds touches of humor that make the violent story more appealing and the characters more likable: “Shelton doubted there was a heaven, though, and even if there was, he wasn’t likely to get in …,” unless “on a clerical error.”
It’s easy to make Percy and Portis likable, which Mulhauser does, but he also manages to transform Shelton into a sympathetic character, which is no small feat. Ultimately, despite its shortcomings, “Sweetgirl” is an exciting, if sometimes imperfectly written, adventure.
By Travis Mulhauser
Ecco Press, 256 pages