Imagine that Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been written by Homer. Or, no, wait, that’s not quite right. Imagine that Walt Whitman had been brought up on MTV and Frank Miller and B-movies and amphetamines, and that he decided to write a novel about werewolves. It is just possible that it might turn out something like Toby Barlow’s peculiar first novel Sharp Teeth.
Of course, that’s not quite right, either. But it’s hard to imagine a description that would be just right. I hadn’t heard much about this novel, other than praise for its crackling and idiosyncratic writing, so when I opened it, I was completely shocked to realize that it is a verse novel. When was the last time you read one of those? If you say “Never,” I won’t be surprised. A novel… about werewolves… in free verse? To be frank, I rarely think verse novels justify the format and can be a bit precious, but I was willing to give it a try.
In Sharp Teeth, werewolves are an ancient race that has survived to the present day. They don’t change with the phase of the moon; that’s a myth. They control their change, man to dog, dog to man. They create other werewolves as we think of vampires creating other vampires: by sharing blood. Lark’s pack dominates Los Angeles, physically and financially: they have lawyers, high-stakes bridge players, bodyguards, city council members. Lark is initiating more and more wolves — homeless people, junkies — because he knows a showdown is coming between his pack and another, shadow-pack that has been running around the edges until now.
Anthony works at the pound. It’s not a bad job, except that he’s soft-hearted, and always giving his lunch to the dogs. One day, he meets a girl he adores. How can he know that she’s a female werewolf (every pack has one bitch, the center, the wolf who gives it meaning) who has abandoned her pack? She wants to escape, but her past calls her back.
Peabody is a detective with the LAPD, and he knows this isn’t a case. He can’t figure it out, though: a robbery, a homicide, a disappearance, and in each case, a dog is at the scene. It’s not a neighborhood dog. No one’s ever seen it before. When he goes to the pound to ask questions, the owner is murdered, and Peabody gets a lisping phone call telling him to look into this further. What is going on here?
I have to admit, this book could have been better. In my opinion, it didn’t justify the verse format (so little can!) and even if I pretended I was reading a straight novel, it wasn’t brilliant, just good. But it was good — it kept me turning pages as rapidly as I could read. About halfway through, I began thinking of it as a graphic novel, because the imagery was so vivid and the pace and dialogue seemed so well suited to that format. As soon as I started thinking of it that way, I couldn’t stop. I kept expecting artwork on every page. It was an odd mix of cliche and originality, power and flab. It was violent, but also touching and funny; gory, but also philosophical and (yes) poetic. One more big edit would have done it a lot of good. But for a first novel, I’m impressed. If this sounds even a little intriguing, pick up Sharp Teeth.