Hair of the Doggerel

Photo: Paul Wakefield/Gallery Stock

Let’s say that you’ve recently polished off your local library’s collection of vampire sonnets, and perhaps even flipped, with a melancholy hand, the final page of your older brother’s three-volume haiku sequence about a marauding colony of Minotaurs—that you’ve exhausted, in other words, the literary exploration of monster subcultures written in obscure forms. Well, take heart. Toby Barlow’s first book, Sharp Teeth, is a verse novel about werewolves. This makes it not only a decisive answer (nay!) to the age-old question “Is long-form monster poetry dead?” but also a perfect marriage of form and subject: Both the werewolf and the verse novel (which lopes across the centuries from Pushkin to Browning to Vikram Seth) are shaggy hybrids that appear once in a blue moon and terrify everyone in sight.

According to his back-cover micro-bio, Barlow is the creative director of a large advertising agency—and Sharp Teeth shows signs of having been creatively directed rather than merely written. Every aspect of the book, from premise to form to cover design (black stylized dog snarling against a solid bloodred field), seems to have been focus-grouped to snag the attention of potential readers. It’s encrusted in cognitive fishhooks. Even its epigraphs are brilliantly addictive—Barlow seems to have hunted down every literary quote that hints, even mildly, at werewolves: Frost (“Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat”), Rhys (“A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves”), a Chinese proverb (“You can’t own something unless you can swallow it”). Such eager primping is not necessarily a bad thing. Literature and advertising, after all, have a long history of cross-pollination. Many of our greatest authors (Byron, Dickens, Whitman) were brilliant self-promoters; DeLillo and Rushdie were admen, and a former student of James Dickey once told me that the poet wrote not only Deliverance but the slogan “Coke is it.” But this flashiness also immediately raises our skeptical hackles: Once it’s caught our attention, we’re forced to ask, can a novel this gimmicky ever possibly function? And is its poetry actual poetry, or just a way to get the authorial foot in the readerly door?

Sharp Teeth begins in engaging, mock-epic style:

Let’s sing about the man there
at the breakfast table
brown skin, thin features, white T,
his olive hand making endless circles
in the classifieds
“wanted” “wanted” “wanted”

The man is Anthony, a kind but jobless non-werewolf Latino resident of East L.A., “where the panther black cars pause on their haunches/while their blonde women eat inside/wiping the blood red/mole from their quiet lips.” Eventually, Anthony lands a job as a dogcatcher, which both raises traumatic childhood memories (dad, puppy, windshield) and plugs him into a switchboard of epic events: drug-running, dogfighting, homelessness, true love—and, of course, enough werewolves to staff the mead bar at an international D&D convention.

But Barlow’s werewolves—or “lycanthropes,” as he prefers—aren’t exactly the werewolves you might expect: fuzzy, bipedal humanoids coaxed into sociopathic rage by the light of the full moon (or, in the more recent but equally powerful Teen Wolf paradigm, inspired to play guitar solos, surf on cars, and dominate high-school basketball games). Instead, they tend to live in secret packs—a combination of mob crew, street gang, frat house, and cult—and to dabble in organized crime. The moon means nothing to them; they can transform at will:

So get this straight
it’s not the full moon.
That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.
The blood just quickens with a thought
a discipline develops
so that one can self-ignite
reshaping form, becoming something rather more canine
still conscious, a little hungrier.

And instead of settling for merely doglike, they turn all the way into actual dogs. “Making the change” takes roughly twenty gooey seconds—“flesh glistening moist, fur protruding from the swollen skin”—and can sometimes be triggered inadvertently by cocaine or the smell of fried chicken. (“They say he took out a Popeye’s once./It made the news, unsolved./It took him an hour.”) This dual citizenship confers many benefits: In human form, werewolves “can do a thousand sit-ups and run fifty miles without pausing to rest”; as dogs they can instantly clean up murder scenes by lapping away pools of blood, and they can always choose between two different kinds of sex: “the pleasure of a dog’s love/is more intense, but the appreciation of a human’s/more delicate, more sublime.” To unleash their repressed energy they take field trips to the desert for recreational werewolfery, running wild and raiding coolers full of steak and Pellegrino.

Anyone terrified by the rigors of poetry—its arcane references, pickled language, and subtle Keatsian line-stitching—has nothing to fear from Sharp Teeth. Its verse is prosy, slangy, aggressively unchallenging, and very, very, very free. Occasionally a tiny herd of iambs will break free and gallop in formation (“they kill to fuck, they kill to eat/and they sleep in the noonday sun”), or nouns will line up in rhythmic strings (“Bone, love, meat, gristle, heat, anger, exhaustion, drive, hunger, blood, fat, marrow”), or a sentence will fold itself neatly into a couplet (“Smiling straight into Venable’s eyes/Cutter chews up the last of the fries”). But most of the book reads like nice snappy prose arbitrarily pinched into fragments. Its tone is often so determinedly anti-poetic it would have made Wordsworth (advocate of “language really used by men”) vomit into the nearest cold lake:

“Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” says Calley.
I hate this fucking job, thinks Anthony.

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.

For centuries, children have fallen asleep to tales of big bad wolves mystifying (at best) their ancestors. Shape-shifting beasts prowled the pages of pulp magazines, and in 1933, American novelist Guy Endore wrote the Dracula of the genre, The Werewolf of Paris. The first werewolf film, Werewolf of London, came two years later, followed by The Wolf Man, in 1941, which cemented the werewolf’s place in cinema history. An American Werewolf in London hit theaters decades later, in 1981. More recently, J. K. Rowling introduced a more sympathetic werewolf, Remus Lupin, loyal friend to Harry Potter.

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

Hair of the Doggerel