A book about werewolves isn’t an unusual thing. Even a book about werewolves forming gangs–deadly gangs–and roaming Los Angeles wouldn’t be that unusual, but Toby Barlow‘s debut novel Sharp Teeth takes it to a whole new level. It’s in poetic free verse, the white space across the pages being an open pit for the imagination as blood saturates large sections of the story. Not really descendants of ancient lycanthropes, the werewolves that fight and run across southern California in this book do carry on ancient, for lack of a better term, bloodlines. And while one gang, headed by a former young lawyer, rakes in cash, another takes out drug labs as part of a larger, more mysterious plot. And on the periphery of all this is Anthony, a dog catcher who quietly moves mutts off death row and spends more than he can afford to feed them carne asada tacos.
Yes, it’s a story with a heart–one that gets ripped out, still beating. Barlow doesn’t spare the grisly details, and a passage in which one werewolf gang taking out another highlights the power of his free verse:
One of the invaders lunges forward, spitting for blood,
but two of the pack take him down,
one cutting his throat so fast
the assault is thrown off for a stroke of time, the surprise
pushing them back on their haunches, as
blood from the torn artery arcs across the room.
But then the attackers surge forward again,
through the raining blood
which glistens on their coats
and flicks in their eyes,
only raising their adrenaline.
Prose would be too heavy for this sort of thing. The line breaks keep up the speed and tension, cutting it further and further down.
The choice of southern California is also important. Between the desert and the ocean, California was the last strip taken by settlers in pursuit of Manifest Destiny, and it’s retained its older history while being part of a newer, fresher history. It’s a place of gangs, terrible violence and poverty, riots, fires, earthquakes, but also incredible opulence. In one section a lone werewolf, cut off from the pack he formerly led, heads to Pasadena hoping to be picked up by animal control. He’s heard that the pound there has a spa, and
has more vets
than the local clinic has doctors,
it has a dietician and
This bright moment of comedy is a nice break in the grimness, as is a moment when Anthony, who’s in love with a woman whose secret he doesn’t suspect, contemplates the quiet desperation of life. Barlow can be extraordinarily gruesome in describing bodies torn apart, but he can also be tender.
We are all china barely mended,
clumsily glued together
for the hot water and lemon
to seep through our seams.
It’s more than a book about werewolves, but lycanthropy itself serves as an elegant extended metaphor running throughout the book. The essence of Barlow’s novel is change, and how it changes us. We are–whether werewolves or not–fragile creatures, and the relationships we create are also fragile but necessary to our survival. In traditional folklore the werewolf has always represented a break with civilization; it is civilization’s antithesis. Barlow has a more modern, more complex outlook. Civilization is, in this book, both civilized and uncivilized. Civilization can’t exist without wildness, but at the same time civilization incorporates wildness into itself. In the end there is no civilization and there is no wildness. There is simply one pack or another.