Sunday, April 27, 2008

Book review: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

In his debut novel, Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow revisits an ages-old mythology, lycanthropy, and places it smack dab in the center of present day Los Angeles. This is no frilly urban fantasy, however: these werewolves are hip and modern, involved in gang warfare, organized crime, card playing for money, meth labs and no-kill animal shelters. What makes this book brilliant is that it’s written in blank verse. You heard me. Sharp Teeth is a three-hundred page poem about bloodthirsty noir werewolves.

There is a lot going on in this novel, with at least three main storylines to keep track of. We meet Anthony first: a young man whose new career as a city dogcatcher begins because other dogcatchers begin mysteriously disappearing. Anthony doesn’t much care for his new life, preferring the company of his quarry to that of his crass coworkers, until he meets a mysterious young woman in a bar. They connect immediately and eventually fall into real, warm, foolish love – which would be sweet except she’s actually a werewolf who is trying to extricate herself from her pack. Werebitch and dogcatcher – surely Romeo and Juliet were no more star-crossed than that.

The pack young woman belongs to (we never learn her name) is run by alpha-dog Lark. He’s been building his membership and honing some secret plan for years, the steps of which include getting a wolf on staff at the city pound as well as winning a bridge tournament. He’s a pretty good guy for a werewolf and when he is betrayed by a close friend and packmember, we feel badly for him. Retreating for a while to lick his wounds, Lark assumes his dog-form and lives comfortably with a lonely suburban woman, enjoying the ear-rubs and only changing back into man-form when she falls asleep after a bottle of wine (in the mornings, she is surprised that the tub of ice cream has been finished). Lark gathers a new pack and prepares to do battle with the rival pack that ousted him.

The third plot thread is that of Peabody, a Los Angeles detective who catches the case of the first missing dogcatcher. Following the leads, he finds a second murdered dogcatcher, and then a third who commits suicide. Prompted by suggestive telephone calls from a lisping man to investigate possible dog-fight dog trafficking, the detective surveils a houseful of blond surfers (also werewolves) and gets himself kidnapped, before witnessing the final bloody battle between the wolf packs.

I will confess to being extremely wary of this book, especially when I saw how long it was – I scarcely like to read haiku. But for all that Sharp Teeth is written in blank verse it’s no poem like I have ever read, except perhaps Christopher Logue’s amazing work on the Iliad. The author has said that he believes the writing style fits the subject matter, that “writing about altered beasts seems to marry well to an altered style of language.” I wholeheartedly agree. The language is taut, visual and visceral. Every word has a purpose and the story is propelled forward with no extraneous mush; the athletic lyricism enables the reader to readily use their imagination to fill in any blanks not expressly parsed out in verse. I found myself turning the pages faster and faster to find out what happened next, and then at a chapter break, going back to reabsorb the striking imagery.

Sharp Teeth is a gritty, grisly, romantic, supernatural thriller, gripping in its content and gorgeous in its execution. Once you are a couple of pages in, you won’t even notice that you’re reading an epic poem. And by the book’s end, I guarantee that you won’t be looking the same way at your own dog.

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