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Sharp Teeth

by Toby Barlow
Harpers, 2008

Nothing will make a prose writer more gratified or more suspicious than if a reader calls their prose “poetic.” It is a weasel word, meaning either “succinct” or “overwritten” or “tediously high-faulted” or “sensual” or “stark” or etc. Most readers who like “poetic” prose don’t actually read poetry. To compound the confusion, those poets who do manage to make their names familiar to the average book-buyer—Mary Oliver, Charles Bukowski, Kahlil Gibran—write a type of poetry that itself rarely strays from the density and rhythm of prose … “prose with line breaks” as an embittered, alcoholic poetry professor might bark, quietly envying their fatuity.

It’s little short of a miracle, then, when a real book-length poem by a talented writer (Derek Walcott’s Omeros, say, or Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate) is purchased en masse, reviewed in major organs and actually read. And so the poetry lover will feel both a strange excitement and a cautious fear when cracking the spine of Toby Barlow’s werewolf tale Sharp Teeth: its lines are decidedly broken into verse and, here and there, rhyming verse at that. So it’s poetry, then, but is it any good as poetry? And why is it in unsellable verse instead of the much-lauded and eminently marketable “poetic prose”?

And does it work as a werewolf tale?

Well, it’s a pretty decent werewolf story in pretty unremarkable verse. The lover of “poetic prose” may sneer … if it’s a pretty decent story, why does it matter if the verse isn’t Shakespeare? My response is that it doesn’t matter at all. Werewolf fans will probably find a lot to enjoy in Sharp Teeth, but they shouldn’t kid themselves that it represents anything like the best that poetry can offer, and they shouldn’t kid themselves that they haven’t halfway fallen for a gimmick, either. The gimmick is that this story isn’t really a novel or a poem—it is an action film.

Sharp Teeth is closer to a good screenplay than it is to a good novel or a good book-length poem. There’s no shame in that, of course, but the gimmick in this case is that it isn’t billed as a screenplay or laid out like one. The five parts of the book (like the five “acts” of the average full-length movie) are broken into twenty or so scenes each. No scene takes place in more than one location (or, in the case of flashbacks, from more than one point of view). The scenes are fast, full of easily described emotion and pithy dialogue. Barlow’s characters are the flat stock of thrillers:

Jason, the hustler
Marco, the recovered addict
Eric, the failed real estate agent
Arturo, the evangelist
and a young man named Bunny
who seems fit enough
but is given to dancing beneath streetlights
to the rhythm of
burning man flashbacks and smooth entrancing beats.

As Homeric epithets, these are less than memorable. As movie types, however, with whom the audience can easily establish a judgmental relationship, they are various enough to win the finished picture a line of praise in Variety for its inclusive social commentary.

The length of Barlow’s stanzas varies, but they inevitably end with little twist-tie phrases that catapult us into the next stanza without giving us any ideas to think about or any language to savor. Three stanzas in a row end, respectively, “Coyotes never last,” “The alpaca is not settling well,” and “it’s a dog’s life.” Cut to next scene.

The big thoughts, when Barlow drops them, are not poetical twists or deep novelistic ironies, they are movie tag lines: “the heart is a bloody thing” or “the bullet we’re running from / is almost never the one that hits us” or “knowing someone isn’t coming back / doesn’t mean you ever stop waiting.” This last one, it must be admitted, is not bad. Every aspiring filmmaker must include one of these when submitting their little picture for even the lowliest festival, and they are surprisingly difficult to write; these are some of the best I’ve seen.

And the poetry is not always bad, either. Take the below:

Ray pays the dockworkers for rumors
the pack hauls in stolen containers
strips ‘em out and sells off the contents
furniture, key chains, tires, stoves, coats.
Simple bread-and-butter work.

The good, instinctive choices here begin with rhyme (rumors, containers) continue in alliteration (containers, contents, coats) and end in assonance (stoves, coats, work). It’s hearty stuff. And Barlow does take the opportunity to play with resonances that prose work wouldn’t provide:

Within a few moments one man
screams. And screams. And screams.

Or anadiplosis, synecdoche, pleonasm:

This is a violent city
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…

The story itself is set up as a hardboiled mystery: different packs of gangland werewolves hire themselves out to meth-pushers, revenge themselves on dog fighters, or just try to stay one step ahead of the law. There is a smoky 3 a.m. feel to the movie’s tone … guilt-ridden characters drink their pain away, commit constant violence, pine for idealized love, smoke, drink, smoke:

Maria, wiping her hands on the towel, says,
“A guy came in earlier tonight, wanted to pay
with the coin he got from A.A.,
his anniversary award.”
“Sounds like he needed a drink.”
“Yeah.” She smiles, holding up the coin. “I gave him one.”
Lark shakes his head, there are so many ways
to get lost in this town.
“I’m going for a smoke,” she says. “Come out with me.”

If I discovered that Toby Barlow once worked as a bartender, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Like a lot of late-night souls, he has chosen to tell an early 21st century story in the early 20th century language of the noir thriller, the hard-boiled con caper. Confronting a suicide, for example, a cynical cop

sees the metal of the pistol
hanging from the mouth.
Peabody’s first thought is how
his old partner used to call this type of exit
“a little eat and sleep.”

Alistair Cooke once called the hardboiled, cynical mode “the easiest parody of serenity available to the bewildered and the thoroughly scared.” In the hands of the proper poet (a Richard Hugo or Bill Knott) the mode can whistle up real meaning from a seeming wasteland. In the hands of a Bukowski-style hack, the characters in such a poem will never come fully into the light. Their favorite songs will always be blandly sentimental and their cynicism impregnable, their violence glorified.

Had Barlow created three-dimensional characters, this would be less of a problem, but the people and dogs in Sharp Teeth are mostly uninteresting as humans, though they do work as dogs. And a ready phrase is always poised to move the plot along. “Let’s just put the wheels in motion,” says one werewolf, “let’s kick it forward.” The narrative voice often sounds less like a Virgil of the Lycanthropic underworld and more like an ad exec giving an inspirational talk. It is possible this is intentionally satiric and, if so, it’s a cunning move:

Tighten the screws
Rewards are mentioned
Greater goals stated

This book, in short, is not great on people or poetry, but it is plenty good on dogs. Barlow has obviously paid close attention to the dogs of his acquaintance and his love for the species snaps across the page. His werewolves lounge with ease, turn to violence in a blink, evaluate one another through cautious and mysterious-to-us sense data, communicate power relationships though sex. They’re like humans, yes, but not quite, and it’s in that difference that Barlow can flex his muscles to the full.

“People make for messy packs and awkward teams,” thinks Lark, the werewolf, in a pound while listening to a veterinarian make a phone call to his wife:

Perhaps because people don’t resort to the decisiveness
of violence quite as quickly as dogs do.
“Listen, I have a full-time job too.”
Perhaps because they don’t submit to their leader
as completely.
“That’s not what I mean. You don’t understand.”
Perhaps being free of a language is a blessing for dogs.

Sadly, reflections like this will have to be abandoned when the premature tie-in makes its final push from the cocoon of poetry into film. But these moments are the sort of things that lull the reader into enjoying the book on the page and even make them forget—for a few minutes—the gimmicks, the hardboiled come-on, and the smoke. A lot of work went into Sharp Teeth, and it can be, at times, a heck of a read.

Jacks-of-all-trades are despised in our specialist culture (Norman Mailer the filmmaker, Scarlett Johansson the chanteuse), and it is possible that I’ve held Toby Barlow to an impossible standard. Who among us, after all, can be a werewolf scholar, a first-class poet, a lean filmmaker, and a marketing wiz all at once? And is it sensible to ask that the dabbler be a master before he publish? Christopher Logue is a powerful storyteller and versifier, but who can best the best? Adam Golaski can write horror stories that are also literature, but why multi-task when one can zoom? And why pitch your book to snobs, after all (meaning poetry fans like myself, and readers of stirring, moving novels) when the right combination of gimmicks and genuine muscle can score you a spot on the mall hall table and an eager and enthusiastic reading public?—and this no ignoble victory, at a time when few people think to read at all.


John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights will be published by Miami University Press in 2010. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters.