Travis Mulhauser’s brief debut novel Sweetgirl is a harrowing thriller that packs an emotional punch. In a small town in northwest Michigan, 16-year-old Percy James is unsurprised to find her good-for-nothing mother Carletta missing once again. Percy begins her search for Carletta where she was reportedly last seen: the home of Shelton Potter, a drug dealer recently released from prison for nearly killing a man. Upon entering the house, Percy discovers Shelton and his girlfriend passed out on drugs in the living room and a crying baby suffering in a freezing cold bedroom. Percy flees the home with neglected baby Jenna, hoping to get her to a hospital before it is too late. Percy relies on her mother’s rough-but-friendly ex-boyfriend Charles Portis for help. After realizing Jenna has been abducted, Shelton begins his desperate search in the harsh snow-laden landscape, unafraid of the consequences of his unpredictable rage.
Mulhauser’s suspenseful narrative unfolds very quickly in a pleasing concoction of comedy and tragedy. He examines each character fully, noting both the unpleasantness and the hidden beauty, delicately shedding an almost sympathetic light on the novel’s vile characters. Mulhauser makes careful use of each word as he deals with difficult subjects including fractured relationships, drug addiction, child neglect, and violence. Sweetgirl is a riveting debut from a promising author.