Travis Mulhauser’s debut opens in the first person with a gutsy 16-year-old tomboy called Percy setting off in a Michigan blizzard to find her junkie mother, who has fallen off the wagon and gone missing. Percy is one of the two Sweetgirls of the title; the other is the neglected baby girl she finds wailing next to an open window in an upstairs room of the drug-den farmhouse where her mother was last seen and where 25-year-old Shelton Potter and his girlfriend, Kayla, are crashed out. Percy considers whether she should ‘go downstairs and suffocate that sonofabitch, Shelton, in his sleep’. But she decides instead to deliver the baby, named Jenna, to a hospital, helped by Portis Dale, her mother’s ex-boyfriend and a former junkie, pursued by Shelton and his cronies. The gutsy girl and grumpy old guy duo is something of a cliché, but Portis is well drawn and their darkly humorous exchanges ring true. The only duff notes are the moments of Percy’s inner monologue that sound saccharine or sententious, and the implausibly heavy symbolism of her mother’s catastrophic reappearance, which causes Percy finally to give up on her for the baby’s sake.
It comes as a surprise, at the start of the fourth chapter, when the narrative voice switches to the third person: ‘Shelton Potter woke in the middle of the night, bothered by the smell of dead dog.’ This is the real debut. Thereafter, chapters alternate between voices and there are