Like most exhilarating works of copious bloodshed, Toby Barlow's debut novel, Sharp Teeth, begins on a quiet note: with a solitary, mild-mannered figure named Anthony Silvo, flipping through want ads at his East L.A. breakfast table. After several fruitless phone calls, he happens upon a position with the city's animal-control department, which triggers the memory of a puppy he received as a child from a bullishly built but warm-hearted father. It is the only clue we are given to Anthony's background or the roots of his melancholic resignation. A week after the puppy's arrival, he recalls, his father went through a windshield on Sepulveda, his mother became a widow, and the puppy was returned to the pound.
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"And after that," Barlow writes, "nothing was kind." This is not, indeed, a gentle world. The city, for one thing, is teeming with werewolves. They come into focus gradually as the scope of the book expands: a pack in Silver Lake, one in Long Beach, one in San Pedro. Feuds are igniting between rivals; hierarchies are falling to violent coups d'etat; onetime dog traffickers are winding up dead or maimed, and the only cop who cares is little match for the surfer-chick pack leader who's taken to stringing him along. One pack has infiltrated the city's shelter system; another, for convoluted reasons, the Pasadena bridge club. Throw in a heavyweight Mexican meth manufacturer named Goyo, out to avenge the death of his brother, an unsavory band of pound co-workers, and a love affair with a woman who, of course, also happens to be a werewolf — though Anthony doesn't discover this until later — and you have a very messy state of affairs for an already ambivalent dogcatcher.
Oh, and did I mention the whole thing is written in verse? Yes, improbable as it sounds: a blank-verse novel about werewolves loose in the streets of Los Angeles, penned by — just to get all the really questionable details out of the way at once — a Detroit- and Brooklyn-based ad executive. There are a dozen ways in which one could imagine such a book going wrong: tedious formalism, lyrical banality, fatuous genre play, gratuitous pop-culture cleverness, ill-conceived parody, grating neonoirishness, or an outsider's cliched misreading of the city. Barlow, however, happily manages to avoid them all. This is a swift, exuberant, at times funny, and ultimately touching book, written with a sensitivity that belies its bloody subject matter. The form is a curious choice, but so decisively assumed that it feels natural after a page or two, lending the work an epic connotation while freeing Barlow up, to some degree, from the historical burden of Chandler and Mosley. The verse is neither finicky nor overly casual, and the economy of the language makes for an intoxicating sense of propulsion, as well as giving Barlow the leeway for delicious little twists like these, from an ill-fated barroom scene: "Postcards of naked girls on a ranch/litter the dusty mirror/tequila tequila tequila yeah"; and "He's flooded by booze by then/trying to think, then he's trying/remembering to try/to think."
The narrative is an intricate tangle of multiple plotlines — a love story, a police investigation, a drug scheme, a bridge tournament and a variety of moblike rivalries — dexterously sustained over five taut acts and culminating in a scene of magnificent brutality. There are no clear heroes and few entirely unsympathetic villains. The book's moral universe hinges less on questions of right or wrong than on shifting patterns of allegiance — one of many subtle ways in which a sense of canine mentality suffuses its very fiber.
These werewolves aren't blindly marauding beasts, helplessly prone to the sway of the moon, but disciplined, sensorily sublimated creatures, capable of changing their form at will. The altered state, as Barlow describes it, is "something rather more canine/still conscious, a little hungrier./It's a raw muscular power,/a rich sexual energy/and the food tastes a whole lot better." The packs are highly organized, Mafia-like entities, each with its own specialty, ethos and code. One, led by a Zen-master-type lawyer named Lark, is a white-collar outfit whose undisclosed services go for very high rates to "the studios, the unions, the trade associations,/or anyone else who hires them." The wolves wear Tag Heuer watches, drive BMWs and funnel their sexual appetites into the acquisition of art and culture. Another pack facilitates the traffic of illicit goods at the harbor, as well as taking out the occasional meth lab; another consists of largely pacifistic beachcombing surfers.
At full capacity, each pack involves a dozen or so males, a single male leader, and a single female, whose power within the pack is self-determined and basically unlimited, often superseding that of the leader. These women, needless to say — Anthony's (and, previously, Lark's) unnamed lover, a maelstrom of tenderness and vengeance; the surfer chick Annie, who moves, in one description, "as if fire had flesh"; a fearsome creature named Sasha ("kerosene and sugar/Barbed wire bent to make an angel"); and Lark's second girl, Maria, a firebrand given to "prodding the world, looking for/what will bite and what will tear" — are among the book's most fascinating characters. All the members of a pack live in the same house, sleep with the same woman and move strictly at the direction of their leader, bound by elemental undercurrents of loyalty and community that Barlow, clearly a dog lover himself, portrays with remarkable nuance.
Though noble in their way, all the werewolves — male or female, white-collar, blue-collar or hippie — are vicious when need be, in a manner decidedly devoid of sentiment or regret. But then, so is the meth dealer, so is mild-mannered Anthony when it comes down to it, so are the forces of Homeland Security when they step in, and so, Barlow obliquely implies, is the war in Iraq, from whose pool of veterans some of the packs mine their recruits. And so, for that matter, is the city itself. Barlow's portrait of L.A. is, for the most part, wisely restrained, free of winking presumptions or sweeping generalizations, but his one sustained poetic tribute is spot-on. It comes from the book's unlikely philosopher — one Mr. Venable: a small, white-haired fellow with a "lisp like a twister," companion to the hulking, silent Goyo, who is given to rambling existential sermons and ultimately serves as the sole moral witness to the book's savage crescendo.
"This is a violent city," Venable pronounces,
and I don't mean rapes and bloodshed.
I mean the existence of every ounce of it.
This entire vast urbanity was bludgeoned from the earth,
torn and wrought,
piece by piece. A thousand bricks.
A thousand tiles.
The concrete and the steel girders
all bitten out of the soil and the rock.
Then, of course, it's brought here,
to the desert, to death itself.
For all that, however, Barlow seems to find hope in what we build with those bricks and tiles — or with the less palpable materials of love, friendship and community. One of the book's many epigraphs comes from Jean Rhys: "A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves. That's all any room is." There are a lot of wolves in Sharp Teeth, but there are a lot of rooms as well, a few of which — most notably the one that shelters the love story — actually manage to withstand the final onslaught.
SHARP TEETH | By TOBY BARLOW | HarperCollins | 320 pages | $23 hardcover