Book Simple: Los Angeles Has Sharp Teeth Indeed
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
Through a series of coincidences, I ended up waiting for The Wolfman to start this Sunday with a copy of Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, in my paws. In this age of the Twilight series, it is expected that once one has written about vampires, one must immediately turn to the question of werewolves. And so, I did – and do.
What if werewolves lived in Los Angeles? Sharp Teeth presents in free verse the struggles of three rival lycanthrope gangs centered in east L.A., the dogcatcher who chases their wolf-forms and the police officer who chases their human ones. But much more than the gangs, this is the story of a dark, beast-like version of Los Angeles. “This is a violent city,” describes a werewolf, “and I don’t mean rapes and bloodshed. I mean the existence of every ounce of it. This entire vast urbanity was bludgeoned from the earth, torn and wrought, piece by piece … to the desert, to death itself.
“Not to mention the water, oh yes, the water/ pilfered from hundreds of miles away, where birds and tree roots awoke one bleak day reaching for moisture once easily known/ and now finding only empty dust, because that moisture’s all been pulled here, to be with us/ shimmering in the sweat of porn stars….” In this portrait of the city, it is not difficult to imagine men shifting into beasts, because the humans themselves are monsters, fighting for territory with a barely hidden animal fury.
The book is full of lovely moments. Lark, the deposed leader of one of the gangs, gets himself picked up by the Pasadena animal shelter. A Starbucks-drinking man and yoga mat-carrying woman flirt as they call animal control; “Lark listens to them come together, their mutual problem solving/ leading to small chuckles, nervous smiles. Lark wonders if way back when/ the first bonds, the first community/ didn’t really begin/ with the same simple question/ ‘What are we going to do/ with all these wild animals?’”
As Lark attempts to regain his lost power, our dog catcher falls in love with the female from Lark’s lost pack; she has her own vengeance to plan for. The policeman discovers a golden-haired temptress, and we cannot tell who is following whom. The intertwined stories make up an epic poem of Los Angeles, and re-reading the beginning I was amused to discover the echo of Virgil’s Aeneid in the first lines: “Let’s sing about the man there/ at the breakfast table … in the classified … small jobs little money/ but you have to start somewhere. Here. LA. East LA.” In Latin, Virgil begins his epic “Arma virumque canto,” which is one “t” away from reading arms, man and dog, cano, (rendered ungrammatically, of course.) It’s a little poetic joke introducing a story full of humor, violence and pathos.
Despite how real the beheadings looked and the emboweling sounded in The Wolfman, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching something from the Turner classic movies channel. A movie from 1941, my date informed me, with the same name and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, a rather improved story. I’m not sure the new version added much; you’d do better to read Sharp Teeth if you want an exciting night of lycanthropy.
Click on the pic to buy the book from Amazon!