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Hair of the Doggerel

The verse is pitched somewhere between rock lyrics, a poetry slam, and Longfellow; mainly, it lends the book a punchy, addictive momentum that matches its plot, and it gives Barlow an excuse to show off his talent for crisp, imaginative metaphors: The scene of a double murder looks like “a Jackson Pollock valentine,” and “Anthony in love is unlikely/in its grace,/like a drunk with a magic trick.”

Regardless of its line breaks, Sharp Teeth is essentially a tightly written crime thriller. The machinations of its plot, aside from the lapping up of blood, are all familiar Sopranos-style topoi: Who works for whom? What are they planning? And who’s spying on them? The novel builds briskly via gunplay, arson, murder, eviscerations, and broken hearts. Anthony falls in love with a she-wolf (every pack, disturbingly, has only one) who’s desperate to escape her murderous past; a once-peaceful pack of surfer werewolves is forced into vigilantism by societal abuse; an alpha white-collar criminal mastermind werewolf gets ousted in a coup, only to find himself adopted (in a kind of ad hoc witness-protection program) as a house pet named Buddy; and a rogue cop gets sucked by a stray lead into this “muddle of riddles.” It’s all nicely paced and smartly embroidered—until the very end, when the plots and counterplots converge in a climactic battle for the soul of Los Angeles, and (although I hesitate to call anything in a werewolf novel “implausible”) the book soars to great heights of bonkers nuttiness. By the time the S-70 Blackhawk helicopter touches down in the middle of a “shrieking, killing symphony of noise,” the book feels like it has morphed prematurely into its own screenplay.

But this is just a quibble: Every dog, after all, has its dénouement. Overall, the book is a howling, hole-digging, bone-snapping, blood-lapping, intestine-gobbling success. To whimper over its misbehavior would be merely splitting hairs.

Sharp Teeth
By Toby Barlow.
Harper. 312 pages. $22.95.