The OF Blog: Toby Barlow, Sharp Teeth (Shirley Jackson Finalist)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Toby Barlow, Sharp Teeth (Shirley Jackson Finalist)

Of ladies, cavaliers, of love and war,
Of courtesies and of brave deeds I sing,
In times of high endeavour when the Moor
Had crossed the sea from Africa to bring
Great harm to France, when Agramante swore
In wrath, being now the youthful Moorish king,
To avenge Troiano, who was lately slain,
Upon the Roman Emperor Charlemagne.

- Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, Canto I (trans. by Barbara Reynolds)

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"
small jobs little money
but you have to start somewhere.
East LA
I love epic poetry and have for a great many years. From the time that a Latin professor of mine introduced my class to the intricate weaving of metaphors and similes of Vergil's Æneid, epic poetry has seized my imagination more than virtually all other forms of fiction. There is something about that notion of a story being "sung," or "chanted" (such as the chanson now known as The Song of Roland) that causes me to pay close attention to the rhythms, to the shifts in voice and of theme, to the often-playful character interactions, to the sheer beauty of it all, that makes for a satisfying reading experience.

But epic poetry has been a moribund storytelling form for over three centuries now, which is why when I read that Toby Barlow wrote his debut novel, Sharp Teeth, in a fashion that would hark back to those ancient forms, I was intrigued. So what if the story involved werewolves, surely an overplayed paranormal/horror staple? None of my favorite epic poets ever really created something "new" when they wrote about the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, or of the twelve mighty paladins of Charlemagne. What each of those writers, from Homer to Vergil, from Ariosto to Tasso, did was to take that source material, hackneyed as it might have been in the hands of a lesser poet and make something meaningful from it.

Did Barlow manage to do something of the same? To a degree, yes, but only to a degree. In his tale, told in free verse rather than in the octaves favored by Ariosto (whose themes most resemble Barlow's and thus will be the epic poet of comparison in this piece), Barlow tells of an ancient band of lycanthropes who shift back and forth from a canine (not lupine) to human state at will, unaffected by the lunar cycle. There is a lost alpha female, nameless, who drives the story; it is her interactions with the dogcatcher, Anthony, that sets up a narrative/character tension that makes the resulting story a real page turner for me.

Mixed in with this saga of deceit and love, of fleeing females and meandering males lost in the gloam searching for their lost leader, are some interesting asides, similar to the ones that Ariosto and others employ to great effect in creating a greater depth to the conflict being played out:

You either trust or you distrust coincidence.
It's either small doses of magic pulling
you to your appointed destiny
or the devil trying to lead you
down to the thorns.
Peabody has no way to know this,
but there is an old lycanthrope legend that got it all right.
The story goes that the universe is run by two simple things,
a prime mover and a coyote.
This coyote is a wily dog born
from ancient trickster bones,
Loki, Hermes, the northwestern Raven of lore,
all glimmer in his aluminum eyes.
And while
the prime move makes
the world simply by
dreaming of its own dreaming
spanning all, shaping all,
the coyote mostly sleeps,
his chin to the ground, one ear perked up,
his body resting in the shade of the prime mover's infinity.
Coyote awakens at something like the smell of bacon
and trots across the kingdom of heaven
hopping down into the world,
sniffing for mischief.
And as the prime mover contemplates
the contemplation that therefore spawns existence,
and time passes without passing,
the coyote sprightly follows the dusty trail back home,
where he dances around the prime mover
eagerly barking and yipping and telling tales
of coincidence wrought, good luck won,
bad luck earned, loose ends that were somehow connected,
all thanks to this little mischief mutt:
the longed-for lover shows up at the bus stop,
the ex-roommate appears with the missing keys,
the thought of a distant friend sails across the mind
just as she strolls by the café window.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" a happy voice sings.
The winning lottos made of birthday numbers,
postcards sent to the dead letter office
but still somehow deliver meaning,
wrong number callers who somehow fall in love,
and the ragged luck of pulling an inside straight
on a last chip on a last bet on a last day.
Coyote wags his tail and brags:
of the taxicab pulling up at the first raindrop,
the wrong turn leading to a better place,
the guilty soul arrested for a different crime,
the critical ally sighted through the ancient hotel's
revolving doors in some faraway destination.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" a voice happily sings.

All this vibrates and shimmers
around coyote as he makes his way
connecting the wonder moments,
for good or for ill
and coming home to tell his story,
wagging, grinning, barking.

But the prime mover simply
revolves on in silence
deaf to everything
moving like a whale
swimming through the
endless blue seas of
its own deep and infinite dream. (pp. 172-174)
In this long excerpt, we see not just traces of the ancient Native American trickster god, Coyote, but also Barlow's use of simile, such as "moving like a whale," to give a ponderous undertone to what is transpiring. It is as much of an aural play as a visual one that unfolds here, deepening the story, causing it to take on universal themes in addition to the more specific ones involving Anthony and his nameless lycanthrope girlfriend.

Those who have read Ariosto's epic and recall the conflicted relationship between the Saracen Ruggiero and the Christian maiden Bradamante will see much in common with Anthony's relationship with the ever-fleeing lycanthrope alpha female. But where Ariosto contains a great many parallels to this central relationship, in Barlow's 308-page story, there is relatively little to compete for the reader's attention. Perhaps this is a welcome change for many who struggle to keep track of all that transpires in tales such as Orlando Furioso, but I could not help but to feel that if Barlow had added just a few more layers to this tale, that it could have been imbued with a similar level of beautiful complexity. As it stands, Sharp Teeth works well as a blank verse epic, as its rhythms are accentuated by the use of verse and extraneous description is excised by a judicious use of epic metaphor. However, the relatively straightforward tale never quite matches the beauty or grandeur of the epic poems it seeks to emulate, settling instead for just a simply told, excellent tale rather than for something that might accrete even more symbolic meanings with each passing re-read. Regardless, this is a tale that I would highly recommend to all readers, especially those already familiar with the epic poets that I referenced above. Well deserving of its nomination for the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel.

Publication Date: October 2007 (UK); January 29, 2008 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Harper Books

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