At a certain point, reading Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth in bars and coffee shops, I just started lying when people asked me what it was about. "Oh, it's about, um, savagery in the urban landscape, and the metaphorical wilderness within all of us. And... dogs. Nick Hornby gave it a great write-up in The Believer."
Hornby did in fact rave about Sharp Teeth, but what I was avoiding saying is this: "It's a free-verse poem about werewolves. And it's good."
Those sentences, in conjunction, induce a level of cognitive dissonance in most people that can probably only be overcome by reading the book.
In Barlow's surprising first novel, contemporary Los Angeles is secretly inhabited by packs of men who can, at will, transform themselves into dogs. (The idea that werewolves only transform at the full moon, we are told, is "as ancient and ignorant as any myth.") The packs work various angles, hiring themselves out as muscle to oblivious crime lords, or laying plans to infiltrate the financial markets of "white-collar" LA—but when one dog betrays his pack, carefully laid plans dissolve and a revenge-fueled bloodbath is unleashed on dogs and people alike. A little human interest is provided by a good-hearted dogcatcher and a bumbling cop, inadvertent participants in a story they don't quite understand—and when the dogcatcher falls in love with a werewolf? Well, it just doesn't get any more star-crossed than that.
The book's got the tight plot, simplified characters, and brisk pacing of a horror novel, but all excess fat has been stripped from the narrative: There's none of the clunky, purple prose you'd expect from a novel about packs of roving werewolves. Barlow's bare-bones verses propel the reader urgently from one scene to the next; it's a finely tuned plot engine, an acknowledgement that when reading a page-turner, the faster the pages turn, the better.
Sex, gore, methamphetamines, and the sordid glamour of Los Angeles—it's all here, audaciously packaged as an epic poem. And somehow, it works: The book's absurdly pretentious structure and absurdly pulpy premise transcend one another, reaching a totally bizarre and highly readable accord. ALISON HALLETT