Toby Barlow's first novel, Sharp Teeth, starts out scary. Not because it's about werewolves -- in gangs, in Los Angeles -- though I guess that's part of it. No, the main thing is the free verse trailing down the pages. At first glance, it looks Odyssey of the Ancient Waste Land scary, a whole lot of hard work.
But then I started to read. And I thought, "Hey, this isn't hard at all! It's interesting. Kind of fun." And I did just what Nick Hornby did: "I looked at the first page, got to the bottom of it, turned it over, read the second page, and ..." kept reading. Faster and faster. Straight through to the end. And then I started flipping back through the best parts.
See, this book is really good. It's got Raymond Chandler atmosphere and James Ellroy tension, surfer dudes and drug smugglers and a nervous, not-yet-old lady from Pasadena. It's got blood and violence and betrayal and corruption, but it's also got all the loyalty that a pack of werewolves -- who, it turns out, sometimes have a lot in common with dogs -- can bring. It's got Anthony, a gentle guy from East L.A. who takes a job as a dogcatcher just as the werewolves are getting down to business. And because it's got Anthony, along with a lonely she-wolf, it's got one of the most entrancing love stories I've encountered in a long time.
And yeah, it's got poetry. Most of the time the taut language pulls you along, deeper and deeper into the narrative, making you wonder why we ever bothered with prose in the first place. But every now and then a passage stops you cold. Here's Barlow on incest:
The world, as a result, turned backward
where blossoms buried themselves while
roots reached like starving fingers
to the grey and fruitless sky.Ouch.
If you like a meaningful story, told dazzlingly well, read this book. Don't waste time with "I don't like fantasy" or "I don't like poetry" or "Isn't that a little weird?" Take my word for it. Or David Mamet's. Or Scott Smith's. Or again, Nick Hornby's, who wrote that Sharp Teeth is "as ambitious as any literary novel, because underneath all that fur, it's about identity, community, love, death, and all the things we want our books to be about." It's that rare page-turner whose insights and imagery will resonate long after the book's back on the shelf, even when you can look again at the big dog snoozing at your feet and see just a furry companion who likes his ears scratched, just so.
Toby Barlow and reporter Rick Kleffel recently discussed the writing of Sharp Teeth for NPR's Weekend Edition. A transcript of the story follows.
Liane Hansen: When Toby Barlow set out to write his first novel, Sharp Teeth, he knew he wanted to tell a story about love and werewolves in modern Los Angeles. But why did he choose to write it in free verse?
Toby Barlow: It's a tricky one to explain. You do have to get rid of, you know, a lot of initial resistance from people who just kind of roll their -- I mean, I had a hard time getting friends to read this.
Hansen: As Rick Kleffel from member station KUSP explains, Sharp Teeth pays homage to both Homer and monster movies. It's an epic love story, as well as a bloody tale of struggles for power.
Rick Kleffel: On the cover, the black silhouette of a dog with silver fangs snarls against a blood-red background. Inside, the stark simplicity continues as the story is told in free verse. Toby Barlow begins with a heroic portrait of a thin, brown-skinned man wearing a T-shirt.
Barlow: The first lines I wrote of the book are the first lines in the book which are, you know, let's sing about that man there.
Kleffel: Specifically, let's sing about the man there at the breakfast table, an unemployed resident of East L.A. who will soon find a job in the classifieds as a dogcatcher.
Barlow: And to me, it was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke in reference to Homer. I'm a huge fan of The Iliad. I'm an enormous fan of The Odyssey. So it seemed to me a worthy ambition to say let's sing about something else. Let's sing about the dogcatcher. So it's a song of a common man in a very uncommon situation.
Kleffel: Barlow says it was an actual dogcatcher, the subject of a newspaper profile, that inspired him to write the book.
Barlow: He mentioned that -- the dogcatcher mentioned that dog packs are made up of gangs of male dogs surrounding a single female dog. And I thought, wow, if that pack of dogs were actually werewolves, and if that female dog fell in love with that dogcatcher, that could be really kind of an interesting social phenomenon.
Kleffel: Barlow's interest in the social lives of werewolves gave him an emotional anchor while writing. Though it started as a love story, Sharp Teeth developed into a vision of downward economic mobility and homelessness. Once, when Barlow was driving in East L.A. with a friend, they encountered a surreal scene he'd recall in the book.
Barlow: Under an overpass, a pack of about 70 dogs went roaming through the streets, and I was completely, completely blown away, I mean, because we were in the middle of, you know, one of the world's biggest cities, and here were all these dogs.
Kleffel: The rival gangs who turn into wolf-like dogs in Sharp Teeth have different strategies as they plot to gain territory and power. Allegiances and positions within the pack change along the way. Jennifer Barth at HarperCollins became Barlow's editor for the book.
Jennifer Barth: Toby's agent is a woman I've known for many years, and we were having lunch, and she said I've got this book for you. She had brought it along, the manuscript, and said, you're either going to love it or you're going to hate it.
Kleffel: Barth took the manuscript home and started reading it that night. She says that Sharp Teeth is not a horror novel, even though most of its main characters are monsters.
Barth: They're not your grandmother's werewolves. They are, you know, the full moon has nothing to do with their change. Much of the time, they take the form of men.
Barlow: And if you kill, kill the unmournable -- deserters, wanderers, rustlers, rumrunners, drug dealers -- men who will never be missed. Life goes on. The light asks little from those who send the darkness away.
Kleffel: When it came time to edit the manuscript, Toby Barlow says the unusual format proved to be an advantage.
Barlow: Actually, the style that I'd written was great, I think, for a first novel because the fat and the meat are so easily separated in a form like this.
Barth: We probably went through about six passes. And the first pass, we sat and we talked about the book sort of on the macro level before I delved in with on-the-page comments.
Kleffel: Between them, Barth and Barlow cut down the original manuscript significantly. The free verse may at first look unfamiliar, but it's comfortable to read. Editor Jennifer Barth views the unorthodox format as an asset.
Barth: No matter how many books you've read this year or last year, in the past decade, you can guarantee that you have not read anything like Sharp Teeth. That to me in this crowded, crowded marketplace, in this failing environment for readers, we're told, is the best hook you could give.
Kleffel: Toby Barlow describes Sharp Teeth as a ripping yarn with the extra words ripped away.
Barlow: I like to think of it more as being a graphic novel without any pictures or a potboiler that's -- a hard-boiled novel that's been boiled down to just a reduction sauce.
Kleffel: And the concise free verse of Sharp Teeth might look invitingly familiar to fans of graphic novels, but short lines and fewer words per page quicken the pace while giving any reader room to breathe.For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.
Hansen: You can read an excerpt of Toby Barlow's novel on our Web site, http://npr.org.
Dr. Vivian Dent is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco.