Sweetgirl is a novel that whips up storms at every turn. Storms. Plural. Percy James, the 15-year-old girl at the heart of this novel—and she is its heart, she pumps blood all through this thing—is stuck in the middle of several at the same time. As an actual and furious snow storm bursts around her at the novel’s start, Percy is in search of her troubled addict mother, Carletta. However, when she gets to the drug den where she figured her mother to be at—the residence of local drug dealer and recently released violent offender Shelton Potter—Carletta is not there.
What Percy finds instead is a baby alone in a crib, freezing near an open window and screaming from diaper rash and malnutrition while its mother is passed out downstairs. Percy knows she can’t leave this baby behind, and so she takes it.
Mulhauser’s novel never seeks out the calm in these converging storms. It runs headlong, with lean yet poetic prose, into every gust of trouble, every squall of violence, every white-out heartbreak. Percy runs with the baby, still unsure of her own mother’s whereabouts, and tracks down Portis, one of his mother’s exes and the closest thing Percy has to a father. Meanwhile, Shelton Potter finds the baby missing and sets off to find who took the child, hiring desperate, unpredictable men to help him in his search. Meanwhile, snow keeps coming down on these characters, and while Percy and the others seem used to the northern Michigan cold, she admits that, still, “at some point the ass kicking feels personal.”
Sweetgirl takes place in the fictional Cutler County, a place Mulhauser carved out in his first book, the story collection Greetings from Cutler County. Following Percy James through her race to save the baby, to get away from Shelton Potter, and to maybe still find her mother, makes Cutler County feel deeply real. These are people lost not just in snow but also in poverty and all the trammels that come with it—isolation, drug use, violence, desperation.
Percy James is a remarkable narrator and driver of this story, a girl old enough to be worn down by the storm that is her mother (“Crisis is a constant when you’re a daughter of Carletta James”) yet young enough and hard-headed enough to press on. With Portis’s help, she tries to get the baby and herself to safety, away from Shelton Potter and that ravaged drug den out in the northern Michigan country.
As a narrator, Percy is both plainspoken and lyrical. She is, for a long while, single-minded, following Portis’s lead in the hopes of getting the baby away from Shelton Potter—who is in chase, though not always effectively—and to safety. It’s how she talks about Cutler, though, that gets at some of her deepest conflicts. She can sound blunt and tired, hemmed in by the place when, say, they’re driving and “The pines were set close and the snow had started to fall again.” She can also, though, wax poetic about her surroundings. She is a girl taken by the beauty of nature, and she sees it around her in quick flashes:
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.
Immediately after this, Percy returns to the moment, to her task. “Portis drank from his whiskey bottle,” she says, “and I trailed behind him.” She sees the beauty in this place but can’t get lost in it. Not now, maybe not ever.
Percy’s voice is so striking, and her conflicts so achingly rendered, that you might overlook Shelton Potter in this story. The chapters swing back and forth between first-person from Percy’s perspective and third-person about Potter. This makes sense, considering Percy James is clear-eyed and determined, while Shelton Potter is constantly in a state of remove, full of bourbon or nitrous balloons or weed or meth or—way down below all of that—the kind of hurt that has no name, that might only be temporarily tamed by those thick, narcotic layers.
Mulhauser’s skill with these chapters equals his deft hand with Percy’s voice. Shelton Potter’s perspective is chilling because it never tips its hand into forced sympathy. Mulhauser doesn’t force us to understand Potter’s addiction or predilections for violence—these seem sprouted from seeds in Cutler’s impoverished ground, made to grow by Potter’s own set of storms—but rather he wants us to merely witness him now, as another force of nature whipping through the landscape around him.
Shelton Potter’s observations are sometimes nonsense, sometimes absurd, sometimes frightening, but always delivered with a surprising straightforwardness. Shelton Potter, in other words, has a logic to what he does. It may be broken in some unfixable way, but Sweetgirl never bails us out by suggesting he’s crazy. Instead, we see what he sees. To us, he’s buckshotting across Culter following any lead or no lead at all. To him, he has a plan, and he knows it will work out:
Shelton had some joints rolled and tucked away in his top-secret drawer in the kitchen, which was also where he kept his Glock with the fancy laser sight. He grabbed the gun and a few hog legs for the road, then blew Kayla a kiss good-bye. He flipped down his visor and walked into the storm. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought he was a hero.
Shelton Potter doesn’t know better, something he may have to admit at some point. But as he chases and Percy runs, this becomes a story about limits, about what you’re willing to do and what you feel to have to do. But it’s also about Cutler or, more directly, home. Percy sees the beauty and the frigid indifference of Culter. She sees a mother gone off again, a sister who already left Cutler. She sees Portis as her only family in the moment. Shelton Potter is running to and from his own set of traps.
So, finally, Sweetgirl wonders about home, about what happens when you’re born into the wrong one, into a place that gets into your blood but a people that break your heart. What happens when home is just another storm?
This is an often harrowing and dark book, but it’s Percy’s nerve that carries us through. There’s also a daring funny streak to this story.
There something hilariously absurd and sad when Shelton, snowsuites up and heads outside to search for the baby, stops everything to find a remote to turn off the Talking Heads’ song repeating itself on the stereo. He huffs whippets and foolishly scours the house until he realizes he could have just pressed the machine’s power button, and that—with his girlfriend passed out on the floor unlikely to wake up either way—“the entire remote incident was a waste of time.” Shelton’s focus can turn us in these wild ways, toward threat and violence or toward this kind of quotidian absurdity, the kind of funny moment that seems both familiar and—delivered from his drug-addled perspective—alien.
Amidst the violence and poverty, such moments are a welcome break but, like anything else in Cutler, it brings with it a chill. Because you remember, as the laughing subsides, why these people can laugh or be funny while everything around them freezes and goes dark: because this is just the same comedown. Because in Culter, crisis is a constant.
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