Skip to main content

Sharp Teeth


Sharp Teeth

“Rage --- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son
Achilles,/ murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless
losses,/ hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy
souls….” So begins THE ILIAD. Its influence has made
itself known once again. Consider the first and penultimate stanzas
of SHARP TEETH: “Let’s sing about the man
there/ at the breakfast table/ brown skin, thin features, white
T,” and “Let us pause now/ and close this sanguine
song.” The references to song as well as the
devotion of the first stanza to description are unmistakably
Homeric. We don’t get much epic poetry these days, let alone
imbued with modernist flair. And we get less in the sci-fi genre.
Even just for this alone, SHARP TEETH is worth a look for those
stylists and speculative fiction fans who like their writing a
little more quirky and intelligent.

There are werewolves all around us. They can change at will. Unlike
the myths (but in conformity with common sense), they live --- and
kill --- in packs. Or, in LA, gangs. They have accounts to manage
their finances. In many respects they live just like us --- except
they can break out of the cages that bind the rest of us to our
normal lives and experience a bloody freedom we can barely imagine.
It’s a shame that The Hulk wasn’t a werewolf; if so,
perhaps our culture would have a greater appreciation for this
mythic and heroic --- almost Achilles-esque --- figure.

Toby Barlow has seen fit to revive the werewolf, and not just for
sci-fi geeks. This is the literate werewolf novel. When he
describes “the elemental comfort” of pack life, we
can’t help but think of the isolated human souls that inhabit
this book. We may have something to learn from the wolves who have
managed to combine intense social unity with unparalleled
individual freedom, an achievement we’re still at a loss

However, the inventiveness of this novel is undercut by its sub-par
execution. If this is an epic “song” as Barlow would
have us believe, even a pared-down modernist one, its poetics are
sorely lacking. The vast bulk of line breaks seem arbitrarily
inserted, reminding us of what should be obvious: that poetry
isn’t just prose with enjambment. Not only does this make
virtually all the dialogue awkward to read, it also detracts from
the text. To read this as poetry, the reader must adopt an awkward
rhythm, as there is often a substantial discontinuity between the
pace of the plot and of the poetry. At other times, words are
dropped to make the text read more like a fast-paced, grittily
urban poem.

None of this stylization is in any way inventive, giving the book a
tired, even cliché feel at times. The overall impression is
that little thought was put into the poetics of the novel: the
lines feel unpolished, which begs the question of why this was
written as poetry to begin with. Neither the premise nor the drama
require it, and while it does speed the pace of the novel, it does
so to its detriment.

However, if one is willing to look past these structural problems,
one may find more than expected. The themes are managed with enough
seriousness, but not so much as to feel heavy-handed. And this
really is a new take on both the werewolf and urban fantasy genres.
In a world where innovation is often shunted before ever being
given its due, rare examples such as this should be congratulated
for their daring.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 23, 2011

Sharp Teeth
by Toby Barlow

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0061430242
  • ISBN-13: 9780061430244