New Fiction: Sweetgirl – Travis Mulhauser

Every once in reviewers can have mixed praise for a book that you thought was flat-out good. That always leads me to some head-scratching and wondering if I really know how to read.

In the case of this dark, comic coming-of-age story, some advance reviewers seemed to want realistic fiction and missed what I thought was the pleasure of the book–the wry language and characterizations. Yes, the plot is rooted in gritty, rural, working class poverty and meth addiction. But the writing tips the book away from the realism and toward an outrageous, larger-than-life rescue story headed up by a wise-cracking, tough young teen. (I defy you not to think of Jennifer Lawrence taking Winter’s Bone hostage and turning it into a David O. Russell movie.)

When Kirkus highlighted a sentence to show that the read requires “strenuous suspension of disbelief” I felt the reviewer missed the point and I’d argue that the sentence instead shows off the book’s strength, which is 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.”

Let me spin out the voice a little more for you:

You will not find me leaping from a perfectly good airplane to prove some vague point about the human spirit. I do not relish risk or seek thrills and cannot understand people who pay their good money to deliberately endanger and punish themselves.  You got to have it made in the first place to even think like that, to walk around feeling like your life needs a few more challenges thrown in….

“I wish they had a Craigslist for such people—rich folks with a bunch of crackpot energy.   People like me could post help wanted ads and then those tough mudders could do something of actual value with their foolishness…”

This is writing with a great musical ear and a deft sense of black comedy. It makes me think of books like The Sisters Brothers­ or a particularly buoyant Elmore Leonard riff.

Sweetgirl is an Indie Next Pick and got a rave review from NPR with coverage form Entertainment Weekly coming.

Sweetgirl works on so many levels, it’s difficult to know how to classify it. As a thriller, it’s pretty much perfect; Mulhauser doesn’t waste a single word, and the novel is calculated down to the sentence. He builds suspense expertly, and the action scenes are (at one point, quite literally) explosive. But there’s so much more going on. Mulhauser treats his characters with a stunning sense of compassion…Mixing humor and tragedy is always a difficult balancing act, particularly in a novel dealing with drug addiction, broken families and violence, and the fact that Mulhauser pulls it off so brilliantly in a debut novel is something like a miracle. Sweetgirl is hilarious, heartbreaking and true, a major accomplishment from an author who looks certain to have an impressive career ahead of him.” – NPR

 “[A] compulsively readable novel–no doubt about it–finish the first chapter and you will be hooked, I guarantee. This book is violent, dark, and impressively redemptive. Villains are haunted by their innocent victims and somehow discover grace. Heroes are flawed, fallible and reek of whiskey and regret….Sweetgirl is a upper-Midwestern homage to great American quest novels like True Grit and Winter’s Bone. It is a truly memorable and remarkable read.”
— Nickolas Butler

 Mulhauser really outdoes himself with this backwoods tale of love, pain, and drug addiction in the mountains of northern Michigan. His fast-paced writing style and cast of fascinating characters make for an adventure-filled story about what it means to love someone and the consequences that come with doing the right thing. A spectacular read!”
— Sarah Kellam Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Crestview Hills, KY

“I am a fan of Ron Rash, TC Boyle, and Winter’s Bone is one of my favorite books so this was right up my alley.  So I read Sweetgirl in a day and connected immediately with Percy and her desperation to care for little Jenna.  All the characters in this book became real for me and though they were involved in a despicable lifestyle, Mulhauser expressed the motivations of their hearts.  I will be recommending this book upon its release!”
— Tina Smith, Joseph Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

“Behind the gilded shores of Lake Michigan lies a dark forest. A forest filled with lies and suffering. A forest that will be up-ended on one frigid night because a young heart doesn’t know any better. Mulhuaser has rightfully earned comparisons to Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell with this spectacular novel.”
— Matt Norcross, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, MI

Sweetgirl (9780062400826) by Travis Mulhauser. $26.99 hardcover. 2/2/16 on sale.

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