Sharp Teeth

It was Jerry Seinfeld, in a sapient moment, who proposed the following: Imagine a Martian peering from the bridge of his flying saucer for a first view of Earth, and imagine his eye alighting on the common city scene of a dog taking its ease at a streetcorner, hovered anxiously about by a stooping human with a pooper-scooper. Of the two beings on display, Seinfeld wanted to know, which would that Martian assume was the higher? In planetary terms, who would he think was in charge?

The dog in the city is one of civilization’s oxymorons, and the dog lover who is pure of heart will face this fact squarely. From the available literature one might instance here J. R. Ackerley’s wonderful My Dog Tulip, first published in 1956, which records in fastidious prose the attempt of a London bachelor to allow his pet Alsatian the full and scented poetry of her nature, and the various embroilments that inevitably resulted. One misty September morning, for example, as the always-fascinated Ackerley is watching Tulip assume her characteristic “tripodal attitude” prior to defecating on a sidewalk in Putney, he is gruffly upbraided by a passing cyclist. “What’s the bleeding street for?” shouts the man. “For turds like you!” shouts back Ackerley. “Bleeding dogs!” screams the cyclist. “Arseholes!” rejoins Ackerley. (“There was no more to be said,” he later reflects. “I had had the last word.”)

Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth is an urban man/dog clash of a different stripe. Written in loping half poetry (the term “free verse” doesn’t really do justice to the long-range tautness of Barlow’s technique), this extraordinary debut novel re-imagines doghood as a state of advanced criminality. Across greater Los Angeles, under the radar, men are turning into dogs and dogs into men. These transformations are not related to the cycles of the moon, nor do the transformed go raving around like werewolves (although they are happy to eat human flesh): they change at will, and as dogs they can pass for your average domestic hound. And most important, they know what they’re doing: the dog-men are organized into packs and operate as muscle in the city’s underworld, disrupting a drug ring here, assassinating (and then consuming) a competitor there. Sometimes they work as humans, sometimes as dogs — either way the same stripped-down, food-first approach is taken to the business at hand. Admire the economy of motive here, for example, as a mixed canine/human crew invades a “mom-and-pop” meth lab and waits for the return of its owner:

The missing man comes through the door and
his shopping bag full of milk and egg
takes Ray’s shotgun blast.
As the pack moves out, stepping
over the spilled groceries and blood,
the dogs pause to lap the yolk and white from the floor
then scamper to catch up to the pack.

What can we call this kind of writing? Action verse? Screenplay poetry? It is the idiom of movement, where there is no division between thought and deed. Christopher Logue used it, or something like it, in his translations of Homer. Ted Hughes, too, put it to work in his smoldering 1977 magical drama Gaudete; to a correspondent he wrote that he was looking for a style fit to be “slammed head on, repeatedly, into the obstinate actuality of objects, of point-blank situations, of things as they are.” Barlow’s contribution is to add a twist of L.A. noir: a dog’s-eye view of the city, needless to say, is more hard-boiled than the most disenchanted of private dicks. (“The green lawns of Pasadena hiss with wealth.”)

Sharp Teeth is a love story and a thriller, with a number of excellent subplots. In one of them the shape-shifter Lark, an ex-lawyer who has formalized the ethics of the pack into a sort of executive bushido (“Discipline from the inside…”), is forced to go underground for a spell, as a dog. With humanoid cunning he gets himself taken in by a nice lady named Bonnie, a gentle pill popper and wine drinker, who rubs him behind the ears and whose home is so very comfortable he almost loses his edge:

It was supposed to be a week. It’s been six.
No rush, really,
the packs will still be there.
The war is waiting.
Just a little nap.
The war is always waiting for us.

As I said, it’s a love story too. Anthony the dogcatcher falls for a beautiful shape-shifter, in ignorance of her true nature. Or is it ignorance? His love seems to reach to the bottom of her being, even if he is unaware that she nips off from time to time to make a meal of somebody.

Their love is eternal because time
seems to have fled, embarrassed
to be sharing such a small apartment
with so much dumb affection.

In a city shared by dogs and humans, the greatest crime for both species is unattachment. The dog not owned, the person not loved or spoken for, is high risk: a coyote.” After the hostile takeover of his first pack, which he had carefully assembled from the city’s go-getting corporate layer, Lark adopts a different recruitment method. He trolls the New Age churches and the methadone clinics, the places where “the lost ones land like dandelion seeds”; he posts an ad offering ‘Self-Reformation’ on an extreme sports website. He approaches stray humans on park benches and promises them inexpressible fulfillments. Lycanthropic alpha male as cult leader — it seems obvious now.

Let’s end with a quick salute to HarperCollins, Barlow’s publisher, who have gone out on a noncommercial limb with Sharp Teeth. The hardcover is beautifully designed in black and blood-red, and it does one good to see such expertise lavished on a verse novel about weredogs. Next: a sequence of four hundred linked haiku, in which Seinfeld’s Martian teleports a squatting city dog into his craft and interrogates him whimsically about the meaning of life on Earth. Seriously — why not?