Toby Barlow's briskly entertaining first book, Sharp Teeth, aims to put lycanthropes first in the supernatural sweepstakes, with a narrative as relentless and powerful as a pitbull's jaws…[it's] plot is tightly constructed, if nothing new: rival dog packs fighting over control of drugs, money, power. The cast of characters is similarly drawn from noir stereotypesgood cop, bad dog, really bad dog. Still, any great noir lives or dies by its stylishness, and Sharp Teeth has got that in spades. Barlow's writing begs to be read aloud by Kathleen Turner, and he has a nice way of nailing his point in a few choice words…
The Washington Post
Barlow's gut-wrenching, sexy debut, a horror thriller in verse, follows three packs of feral dogs in East L.A. These creatures are in fact werewolves, men and women who can change into canine form at will ("Dog or wolf? More like one than the other/ but neither exactly"). Lark, the top dog in one of the packs who's a lawyer in human form, has a master plan that may involve taking over the city from the regular humans. Anthony Silvo, a dogcatcher and normally a loner, finds himself falling in love with a beautiful and mysterious woman ("Standing on four legs in her fur,/ she is her own brand of beast"). A strange small man and his giant partner play tournament bridge and are deep into the drug trade. A detective, Peabody, investigates several puzzling dog-related murders. The irregular verse form with its narrative economies proves an excellent vehicle to support all these disparate threads and then tie them together in the bittersweet conclusion. 5-city author tour. (Jan.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Children's Literature - Heather L. Montgomery
Anthony Silvo, a twenty-something dog catcher, falls in love with a mysterious woman. Unfortunately, she turns out to be a werewolf. In this gritty thriller, human werewolves can change to canine form upon choice. Congregated in houses reminiscent of frat houses, the secret packs are involved in Los Angeles's organized crime community, hiring themselves out as hit men. Three packs compete for power (and readers' attention). Unlike traditional werewolves who are at the mercy of the moon, these Lycanthropes are intentional in their killing, cunningly using their canine nature to dispose of (lick up) the evidence after a murder. The book has significant adult content, particularly graphic descriptions of sexual acts, drug use, homosexuality, and scenes full of blood. In this, his first novel, Toby Barlow masterfully uses free verse to complement his plot. Although some prosy sections seem to be randomly chopped into short lines for pacing purposes, Barlow is skillful in his use of rhythm, occasionally rhyming for emphasis. The dark, mysterious nature of the verse provides a sinister mood that increases the sense of intrigue surrounding the werewolves. Although many literary references are included in the text, the poetic nature of the novel should not scare off readers, as it is a slangy and easy read. Barlow successfully presents deeper concepts such as community, consequences, love, and loss in this sexy, intriguing epic poem. Reviewer: Heather L. Montgomery
Down and out in Los Angeles, Anthony reluctantly takes a job as a dogcatcher, though his sympathies lie more with the death-bound dogs in the pound than with his coworkers. When he falls in love with a woman he meets, apparently by accident, he becomes unwittingly drawn into her world-a dark supernatural world of werewolves-and into the lives and ambitions of the rival packs of shapeshifters who haunt the fringes of society. Pulsing with feral intensity, Barlow's debut depicts the lives of seemingly ordinary people who have crossed the boundaries between human and beast and between predator and prey. Written in a free verse style that perfectly complements the action as it moves from slower-paced narratives to short, jagged scenes of graphic violence and heartbreak, this groundbreaking work commands attention from a wide audience, including genre fans and modern fiction aficionados. A superb addition to any fantasy or modern horror collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/07.]
School Library Journal
Adult/High School- Barlow's debut novel innovatively mixes horror, noir, and epic poetry, creating a uniquely thrilling read. Ruled by competing packs of werewolves, the seedy underside of LA is far stranger than anyone ever imagined. Lycanthropes hire themselves out as hit men and pushers, both driving and feeding off the criminal world. At the center of the story is Anthony Silvo, a self-professed loner and dogcatcher who falls in love with a mysterious woman; she leads a second life as a werewolf and works for Lark, the leader of the most dangerous werewolf pack on the streets. Her growing relationship with Anthony causes her to regret the wild choices of her past and seek out a new life. Meanwhile, Lark suspects that competing packs of lycanthropes are after his power and he prepares for a massive, citywide conflict. Other subplots include a detective's investigations into werewolf-related murders and a comic bridge tournament that might have ties to the LA drug trade. Some readers might be initially intimidated by Barlow's free-verse poetry, but, after a page, they will be swept into the rhythm. It's also to Barlow's credit that the touching moments between the woman and Anthony work as powerfully as the most graphic violence in the story. The dark humor and grim story line will immediately draw in fans of other neo-horror novels, such as Christopher Moore's You Suck: A Love Story (Morrow, 2007), but Barlow's deeper style is wholly his own.-Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA
Rival gangs of werewolves duke it out for control of Los Angeles in this dark but oddly tender free-verse novel. The werewolves of Barlow's imagined world don't adhere to traditional rules-descendents of the ancient lycanthropes, they feed on flesh and are able to change from man to dog whenever they please, regardless of the lunar cycle. Unofficially, there is room for only one woman in each pack, and she tends to link herself to the leader. Lark is the dominant dog in the beginning, until his girl (who remains unnamed) strays, and he is betrayed by Baron, a member of his pack. There are a few changes in leadership, but eventually Baron pairs with Sasha, a darkly seductive female werewolf, to form a dangerous rival gang. Lark's former girl hides out in human form with Anthony, a fully human dogcatcher. The girl is desperately worried that her new love will uncover her secret, yet she continues using her charms to seduce and murder threatening members of the werewolf community. Lark, meanwhile, seeking temporary refuge, turns himself over to the Pasadena Animal Shelter, where he is adopted as a pet by Bonnie, an insecure and lonely suburban woman. While Bonnie is at work, Lark organizes a new pack, made up of an unlikely cast of characters, including the token woman, an abused bartender named Maria. In other events, just as Lark's former girl gets ready to leave the werewolf life and flee Los Angeles with Anthony, she is attacked by Sasha, who is trying to bump her off. Though the fight ends in the girl's favor, it compromises her hopes for a simpler future. Lark is left with his own struggles, as he juggles his role as pack leader and his (unexpectedly content) life with Bonnie. Thoughthe free-verse form takes getting used to, it serves to heighten Barlow's visceral imagery. A refreshing leap across genres.
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. 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.")
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.
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. 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.
No rush, really,
the packs will still be there.
The war is waiting.
Just a little nap.
The war is always waiting for us.
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 400 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? --James Parker
James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press). He is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix.
“Tremendous.... As ambitious as any literary novel, because underneath all that fur, it’s about identity, community, love, death, and all the things we want our books to be about. ”
“If Ovid had been raised on a steady diet of Marvel Comics, Roger Corman and MTV, he might’ve written something like Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth.”
“A sexy, dark and (well, yes) biting story told by a wizard of sleight of hand.”
“I like this book - lycanthropy indeed begins at home.”
“Forget any reservations you might have about werewolf stories or verse novels. This is great, engaging, wonderful stuff. Sondheim should make it his next musical.”
“I’m impressed. I always knew stuff like this was going on in L.A. What a cool book!”
Wall Street Journal
“Romeo and Juliet, werewolf-style.”
Read an Excerpt
Let's sing about the man there
at the breakfast table
brown skin, thin features, white T,
his olive hand making endless circles
in the classifieds
"wanted" "wanted" "wanted"
small jobs little money
but you have to start somewhere.
a quarter mile from where they pick up the mariachis
on warm summer nights
two miles from La Serenata de Garibaldi's
where the panther black cars pause on their haunches
while their blonde women eat inside
wiping the blood red
mole from their quiet lips
"wanted" "wanted" "wanted"
he circles the paper
then reaches for the phone
breathes deep, begins.
"job was taken already, good luck"
"you got experience?"
"leave a message"
"you sound Mexican, ola, you Mexican?"
"call back Monday"
"mmmn, I don't know nothing about that"
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?"
His father was not a man but a sleepy bull
with sledgehammer hands and a soft heart.
He once brought a dog home from the pound
Sipping coffee by the phone now
that little yapping note of hope still rings in his ears.
Anthony smiles, remembering the way
the puppy sat between his father's strong legs
as they stood looking down like gods
at the cowering little creature.
They laughed. The pup relaxed,
wagged its fat tail.
His father was kind to thedog, to the kids, to his wife
until a week later when he went through the windshield
on Sepulveda. Hit so hard
it didn't matter where he landed.
And after that nothing was kind
it was every man for himself
and there were no men
just a widow, some kids
and a dog who went back to the pound,
taking his chances with no chance at all.
C'est la guerre.
Pondering his path,
Anthony wonders now,
if maybe that dog
wasn't just some real bad luck.
"Packs of thirty or forty at a time
like gauchos in their own damn ghost town.
They come from the hills, up from the arroyos.
We don't know how many, estimates vary,
but each time they come in
a few house dogs go back with them.
Anytime you got toy poodles breeding with coyotes
it's gonna get interesting."
Calley is so white, he's red
with blanched features pickled and burned.
He shows Anthony how to wrangle, how to pull hoops, slip a wire.
They sit at the firing range. "You'll be shooting tranqs,
but might as well practice with live rounds." Calley shows
bite marks on his hands, legs and arms.
His breath bites too: coffee, cigarettes, and just plain old rancid.
"I'll ride partner with you for a bit, but with all the cutbacks
they're making us all ride solo now."
"What happens if I hit a pack?"
"Hit a pack, hit the radio." Calley pauses, draws on a smoke
the red in his eyes almost matches the
blood vessels spidering across his face
It's a foggy, milky, bloodshot stare,
but it still holds a mean light.
He rasps, "You like dogs?"
"Mmmn," he nods. "You won't."
The "animal control" logo makes Anthony wonder. Sharp Teeth. Copyright © by Toby Barlow. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Animals have no control, they run, they fuck, they eat,
they kill to fuck, they kill to eat
and they sleep in the noonday sun.
Anthony's not afraid of the dogs,
he's not afraid of the work,
he just hates the other guys.
He sits apart, trying to stay clean.
Perhaps over time he will become like them
with their permanent stains and bitter dispositions.
But Christ almighty, he thinks,
I hope not.