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Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

(HarperCollins)

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sharp Teeth
By Toby Barlow
(HarperCollins)

Reviewed by Fred Sasaki

If you want to piss off a god, serve him the flesh of his subjects. So says the story of Lycaon, first king of Arcadia in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Zeus rolled in to the palace and gave the sign that a god had come. The people prayed and Lycaon mocked them and plotted to kill Zeus in his sleep, proving him mortal. But first Lycaon arranged a simpler test: for a plate of fresh boiled human flesh to be presented to the touted god. “That was enough,” said Zeus, and turned the tyrant into a bloodthirsty wolf. That’s lycanthropy for you, as in werewolves, the subject of Toby Barlow’s debut verse-novel, Sharp Teeth.

The myth of Lycaon is doubly appropriate, as Sharp Teeth is about as big a literary fuck-you as anyone can muster. There are three radically puzzling aspects to this book. One is that it’s written in free verse. Two, it’s a werewolf book. Three, it’s a free verse werewolf book. The conceit is grand, especially when Barlow states who’s to credit for the peculiar blend of verse, pulp noir and folklore. In an open letter to a would-be reader, he names Homer and Milton; a trunk full of comic books (Frank Miller and Alan Moore); and the lyrics of David Bowie, John Prine, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello.

Starbucks becomes:

In the coffee shop,
she sips her tea and watches
each one of the people coming and going,
thinking, yes, my fury could eat all of you, it really could,
the barista boy, the fat woman with the scone, all of you,
you warm blood would fill my throat,
the flesh from your limbs would be chewed and gnawed,
the snapping of my teeth would splinter your bones,
your pickled livers would be licked and swallowed,
and finally the points of my incisors would cut down
into the steaming, warm meat of your hearts


The feeling that this book is written in verse for no reason drips away and it all makes sense — that some of the lycanthropes play bridge and eat carne asada tacos; that each pack requires one woman to satisfy all of them; that it all takes place in Southern California. The pace and dramatization of the lines cut out a gripping hardboiled tone that’s as much Sin City as it is Metamorphoses.

At the very least, Sharp Teeth is a supreme fetish document of contemporary mania. Physically, the hardcover feels like a small schoolboy textbook scratched with illustration; it has California landscape endpapers and a spray of mock woodcut wolves throughout. But much more, this first novel is a genuine adventure, the kind of book that invites progeny in general, and in particular from Barlow.

 

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