There's no way to sugarcoat it. Sharp Teeth is a 300-page novel in verse about werewolves in Los Angeles. If that had you at "werewolves" or "novel in verse," then this book is definitely for you. But even if neither of those phrases rings your bell, Toby Barlow's debut shaggy-dog tale is worth sinking your teeth into.
Despite its pseudo-fantasy premise, the blood that pumps through Sharp Teeth is pure noir. A turf war between rival packs of lycanthropes embroils a rogue's gallery of familiar but fleshed-out types: there's the detective who should know better, a shadowy crime lord, a mysterious and extra-fatale femme, and a regular joe who falls for her. The city of LA looms large as well, but it's as a jet-black backdrop for this pulp yarn, with updated details like taco stands, burn-out beach bums and crystal meth labs.
"Why verse?" I can hear half the skeptics asking. Well, rather than making Sharp Teeth unbearably pretentious, the unrhymed lines of varying length actually make the book quite hard to put down. The unusual form gives the page a ragged edge, sending your eye racing, and moving the already rabid pace along at quite a clip. Occasionally, it just feels like julienned prose but, on the whole, verse allows Barlow to play up the hardboiled cadences of his writing.
"What about this werewolf business?" The other half of the peanut gallery complains. Well, Barlow never really calls them werewolves, and he doesn't seem interested in belaboring the mythology of his conceit. Instead, he has his "dogs" playing bridge, planning public relations coups and fighting over pack hierarchy. When they transform, they turn into surlier-than-average house dogs rather than top-predators. They even lie low in unsuspecting suburban homes when the heat is on.
This image of a ravenous beast quietly watching late-night TV with you gets to the heart of what Barlow is trying to do here. As well as being a rip-roaring read, Sharp Teeth is a sly social satire in wolf's clothing. The packs draw their ranks from the outcast and the marginalized recent army vets, the homeless, and bars at closing time. Out of these cast-offs they fashion warped but close-knit clans with big dreams and bigger problems. Threaded through even the most gonzo pulp scenes, there's an undertone of unease and even anguish with the way modern society lets people slip through the cracks. While Sharp Teeth serves up plenty of sensational blood-and-guts entertainment, it also manages to reflect on love and revenge, community and competition, and what binds people to one another.