Ouch!


sharp teeth paperbackSharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Harper, 2008

Reviewed by Seana Graham

How about a werewolf tale to set your Halloween weekend up right? What if it’s set in Los Angeles—not the glamorous Hollywood world, but East L.A., the docks of Long Beach, the desert? Fine so far? Well, how about if it’s written in free verse?

Oh, so now you’re scared? Well, take some advice from Toby Barlow himself in an interview for the Harper paperback P.S edition:

Instead of thinking of it as poetry or verse, try thinking of it as a story stripped down to its very essence—a ripping yarn with all the unnecessary words ripped out. One reader described it as a graphic novel without the pictures, and I think that pretty well captures what I was after.

Okay, all set? Then fasten your seat belts, because it’s going to be one heck of a ride.

Anthony’s a young guy on his own in East L.A. He’s only trying to survive. No one wants to give him a job.

 

Then his barbed hook catches. A thin gold vein

 is struck. Buds of hope crack through the dry white earth:

“oh, sure, come on by, what’s your name?”

 

And so he becomes a dogcatcher, soon wondering how long it will take for him to become a replica of the bitter, defeated men he works with. Meanwhile, though he can ill afford it, he continues to feed three dogs slated for death carne asada tacos.

Lark is a different breed all together. He’s the leader of the pack, literally. Sometimes they’re men, sometimes wolves, but they are always a pack. And there’s only one leader. There’s also only one woman, and Lark’s method of holding the group together is through the Ukan way, a practice of perpetual sublimation of desire. As wolves they run in the desert; as men, they’re more like your typical illegal drug syndicate. Lark’s the kind of guy who’s always thinking three moves ahead. Maybe that’s why his pack turns out to be so good at bridge. But it turns out even he isn’t invulnerable.

Sharp Teeth is a story that works on many different levels. On one, it’s simply a tale of gangs and reprisals, such as those you might be familiar with from shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire. The other levels, though, are, to me more interesting. One thing Barlow is really good at doing is making the life of the wolf pack seem in some ways more attractive than our own.  It’s their life together as wolves that resonates with us. It’s  a tough and often brutal path, but they have a skin on skin closeness that we lack. After reading this book, you may understand better why people join gangs and cults and other groups, seeking this deep communal feeling that wolves have in abundance but that mostly eludes us.

Barlow also makes us take a closer look at those wolfish counterparts found in our own living rooms. The side story of how alpha werewolf Lark comes to be the pet companion of a lonely woman named Bonnie is humorous and touching in equal degrees.

And there’s a love story, a real one, packed in here too. Although, technically, it’s a love story between a man and a werewolf, there’s nothing kinky about it. Barlow writes beautifully about burgeoning love between two wary people, both on a physical and a spiritual level.

That’s what love does.

It chases the dragons away

before their claws can sink in.

I loved Sharp Teeth as well for the close observation of its Los Angeles setting, and for the philosophical asides that Barlow manages to throw into what otherwise is a fast paced story of, well, teeth and fangs. A hybrid story centering on a hybrid creature, it’s perhaps only fitting that it should be told in a hybrid form as well.

 

Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life.

Sharp Teeth at HarperCollins

A conversation with Toby Barlow from the Harper paperback P.S. edition

Toby Barlow interviewed at Mother Jones