Go, dog, go

Bold, fresh and about as traditional as literature gets. How else to describe Toby Barlow’s novel-in-verse, Sharp Teeth?

Think Beowulf meets Bram Stoker. Or imagine Homer turning his epic poetic tools to the tale of a pack of urban werewolves—who are, in reality, more dogs than wolves. Scratch behind his ears; make his leg go thump-thump. Wolves don’t do that.

Faux epics have too much self-ironizing going on—look at Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and remember how hard it is to take seriously. But Barlow’s made a real epic of the underworld, with dog packs as operatic as Coppola’s vision of the Corleone family, while retaining a sense of humor.

Forget your resistance to the idea of a novel-in-poetry. Come see what it does. Pacing to rival a graphic novel, combined with the sort of lush language that makes readers fall into a literary novel with such abandon. And werewolves, the ultimate guarantee of a struggle between our better and lesser angels. But which is which?

Anthony is a dogcatcher. “She,” the unnamed bitch, is not completely human or perhaps more than human. Anthony loves her, though he does not know who she really is, and he hates killing dogs. Around them, Los Angeles goes about its business: regular people going to work; surfers lounging in the sun; meth labs cooking; Peabody, the detective, looking into the disappearances of—what’s this?—a couple of dogcatchers who may have been involved in a dog-fighting ring.

The dogs: They run, bite, bark, jump, roll in the grass like dogs. They eat, poop, copulate, growl and lay in the sun like dogs. And they take contracts to kill people.

Barlow’s poetry may be uneven in places, but for the most part, it works as poetry. Short lines and enjambment move the story forward quickly, while longer lines develop the ideas behind the narrative. For example, this stanza, which could easily find publication in a contemporary literary journal:

In the car, the rap song has every other word beeped out / as if the words themselves were a dangerous thing, and not / the ideas of violence and waste and ridiculous luxury / that the songs clutch in their rough embrace. / Everyone is always looking in the wrong direction, / we worry about our lovers while losing our jobs / we stress about cancer while our children run away / we ponder the stars while burning the earth. / Lark used to say the bullet we’re running from / is almost never the one that hits us.

Sharp Teeth is full of sharp teeth and even sharper ideas, but sometimes literary novels get lost in themselves and lose the point of the story. Barlow does not do this. The key elements of a good yarn are all here: conflict, heroes, innocence, danger, dogs who act like people and people who act like dogs (as well as a bit of confusion as to which is more humane).

It doesn’t matter if you like werewolf novels but not poetry or poetry but not genre fiction. Sharp Teeth is better than labels. It’s a good story, wrapped up in a good poem and made into an excellent book.

Go, dog, go.