Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Review: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Ok, I admit it. I was a little worried when someone first sent me a note that I had to read this book. I mean a book-length epic poem about werewolves? It would either be touched by genius or be complete trash. Fortunately, Toby Barlow's first novel Sharp Teeth leans more towards the genius side of things than trash. I'll never doubt suggestions from friends again.


Ruled by competing packs of werewolves, the seedy underside of L.A. is far stranger than anyone ever imagined. Lycanthropes hire themselves out as hitmen and pushers, both driving and feeding off of the criminal world. The center of the story is Anthony Silvo, a self-professed loner and dogcatcher who falls in love with a mysterious woman; this unnamed woman leads a second life as a werewolf and works for Lark, the leader of the most dangerous werewolf pack on the streets. The growing relationship with Anthony causes the woman to regret the wild choices of her past and seek out a new life. Meanwhile, Lark suspects competing packs of lycanthropes are after his power and he prepares for a massive, city-wide conflict. Other side-plots include a Detective Peabody’s investigations into werewolf-related murders and a hysterical bridge tournament that might have ties to the L.A. drug trade.

Now about the poetry. I'm a poor judge of what makes a good poem; I just don't have the expertise to judge it fairly. But I can say that Barlow's style is free verse and it seems like he uses it well. The line breaks are used mostly to play with rhythm and to highlight particular words or phrases. After a page or two you get used to the flow and really enjoy what he's put together. It’s also to Barlow’s credit as a storyteller that the genuinely touching moments between the woman and Anthony work as powerfully as the most graphic violence in the story.

The dark humor and mix of high brow/low brow culture---Barlow makes just as many references to Greek philosophy as he does old horror movies----is good fun. It's like a slasher horror movie told through the words of someone who can actually write without (too many) cheap tricks. I debated over reviewing this, because it's already gotten a fair amount of good press. But I loved this enough that I felt compelled to share anyway.


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