Tuesday, May 06, 2008

New Release Spotlight: Sharp Teeth

Sharp Teeth by Tony Barlow

Sharp Teeth is a dog story. Those who love the animals will appreciate the tender care with which Toby Barlow describes them:

The sublime form of a dog as she lies
curled up like a comma

Or the absolute satisfaction
performed with quiet muscular grace
of a dog roughly going at a good meal.
Or the joyful dance in a dog’s eyes
as she sits alert watching,
waiting for you
to do
that something
she wants you to do.

But this is not a dog story for the purely sentimental. This is also a dark, violent drama, more akin to The Godfather than to James Herriot. Set in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and between, Sharp Teeth follows three packs of werewolves. As humans, they are everything from lawyers to mathematical geniuses, from homeless to addicted to drugs, from abused to simply adrift. Once they change (full moons not required, just an unexplained willingness), they count cards in Vegas, viciously destroy mom-and-pop meth labs, try to thwart rival packs, and plot a bigger power play. Even more innocent encounters, a pack (of dogs or of werewolves?) running across a trail is tinged with foreboding: “[joggers] have just been reminded/that they are merely/warm and scented flesh.”

Above all this, Sharp Teeth is a love story—between Anthony the dogcatcher and a never-named female werewolf, between pack leaders and power, between pack followers and each pack’s sole female, between humanity (even when it comes in dog form) and life. Even the format is writing’s most recognizable constraint for expressing love: the poem.

Suddenly-uninterested readers shouldn’t be—the book reads like a fast-paced novel, as opposed to a poem, though Barlow saves it from being gimmicky by proving time and time again that a poem really is the best way to tell this story. While some lines seem like they could have just as well been combined into one line, as in prose, many others show an added layer of power in poem form. Consider the first quote in this review: the line breaks truly mean something. The book’s epigraph is a line by Robert Frost: “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.”

This is a fantastic—both in quality and story—first novel, one that would have been a good read even without the unique format, even without the werewolves. On waiting for what is starting to appear to be bad news, Barlow writes, “Each second now undoes itself, unraveling like a fraying thread” (44). On not being able to share a huge secret with a loved one: “As much as your bones muscles tendons/ache to open up, the truth still lies/curled and buried beneath your tongue” (55). On what the face looks like when death is near: “What was pale before/is now the flesh of a drowned man” (73). Observations like those move a piece of writing beyond even itself, so that the next time readers hear a dog bark, they’ll think not first of werewolves but of one of the bigger subjects Barlow wrote about, such as vulnerability: “We are all china barely mended,/clumsily glued together and waiting/for the hot water and lemon/to seep through our seams.”

Review by Kristin Thiel, Indigo Editing, LLC

ISBN: 978-0-06-143022-0
Publisher: Harper
Pub Date: February 2008
Hardcover: $22.95

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