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February 8, 2008

Book Notes - Toby Barlow ("Sharp Teeth")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

When Sharp Teeth arrived in the mail, I was struck by its simple red, black and white cover featuring a snarling, evil dog. Then I opened the book, to find a novel written in free verse. To say I was skeptical that I would enjoy the book at this point would be an understatement, but Barlow has crafted a suspenseful, often horrifying debut novel. Filled with intelligence, the poetry serves to magnify the story's arc and create the year's most unforgettable werewolf tale.

In his own words, here is Toby Barlow's Book Notes essay for his novel, Sharp Teeth:

Why write a novel in free verse? Good question, one I had to ask myself a lot. This was my first novel and I didn’t know, frankly, if I was being savvy or perfectly nuts. But, I would tell myself, we all grew up reading the lyrics off the backs of old albums, trying to stitch together some sort of meaning out of the ragged lines lying there. So instead of proper poetry, I aimed to summon up some rambling dark adventure less like Coleridge and more like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” or Nick Cave’s “The Curse of Millhaven.” And as I was writing about altered beasts, an altered style seemed kind of fitting. The result reads less like the epic poem you had in freshman lit and more like a graphic novel with all the words torn out.

Predictably, there was a lot of loud music playing while I wrote this. Not thrash metal so much as songs that evoked that space we share with the dogs in our lives. It turns out there are a whole lot of them.

Salty Dog - Cat Power

Ever since I was little, this old, traditional tune seemed like the funniest song in the world. Back in my house growing up, there was a bluegrass band that would sometimes play it in the living room and I would clap along like a joyful monkey. But when Cat Power sings it, it becomes dark and a little seductive. Then again, she could sing about toast and it would be dark and a little seductive.

The Hungry Wolf - X

Back when they still followed their legendary new wave and bluegrass format, the old, good WHFS used to play the instrumental version of this whenever they were telling us who was playing at 9:30 or DC Space. Decades later, when I was feeling a little woolly, I would blast the tune to get my head plugged back into my story. It always did the trick; after all, my books about wolves in LA and it’s a song about wolves performed by the greatest band to ever come out of Los Angeles. I’m just hoping their lawyers don’t ever do the math on that one.

Star Witness - Neko Case

There’s something desperate and lost wandering through this song. Fragments of violence and longing haunt the tune. “The look on your face / yanks my neck on the chain” hits home.

Rain Dogs - Tom Waits

I’ve heard that it was his wife Kathleen Brennan who cajoled Waits into putting aside his pseudo blues parody style and pushed his music in a whole new direction. God bless the challenges of love. When I first heard it, it was the bravest thing I’d ever come across. The way he disassembles and reassembles the instrumentation to concoct something wholly new and unique was incredibly inspiring.

Why Do Wolves - Lo-Fi Sugar

I miss record stores. Not the big mega store nonsense, but the little neighborhood store in the strip mall, tucked in next to the kung fu studio and the gun shop. There was always the passionate employee in there who would talk your ear off about this or that band. You would kill a whole afternoon and walk out with twelve bucks well spent. That’s how I discovered punk rock, reggae, and Rick Springfield. But I found this song in the lonely and pathetic 21st century equivalent manner, just trolling through the Itunes store when I should have been working.

Old News - Dr. Dog

Jeff Tweedy recommended this band in a column in the New York Times and I just want to say God bless him for it. The loose and jagged nature of this song is fantastic good fun, like watching drunken puppies play in the mud.

Diamond Dogs - David Bowie

As a dyed in the wool Bowie-phile, I have to say I really do hate this period of his. The song is better than the album, though. Twenty years of listening has convinced me it’s about nothing more than just another night on the post-apocalyptic town, but I did always try to read something richer into it. Maybe my novel is just trying to fill in the blanks. Maybe his lawyers should talk to X’s lawyers.

Wolves a Howlin' - John Hartford

Hartford is a hero of mine. He wrote one absurdly huge blockbuster hit, “Gentle On My Mind” that was covered by everyone from Glen Campbell to Dean Martin to Leonard Nemoy. With the money he made off that he was able to live an enviable and unfettered life, going around digging up lost and long forgotten folk tunes while also somehow getting a steamboat pilot’s license along the way. This tune’s an old Mississippi Alabama jig, which I find especially funny since it basically encourages the listener to dance along while listening for the hungry wolves who sit waiting outside the door. Wonder how that night ended.

Dog's Life - Eels

This tune off their B-sides release is a treasure. It captures perfectly the everyday envy we have for the simple creatures lying at our feet. In a similar manner, the characters in my book choose to be dogs because life is less complex and the food tastes better.

Raised By Wolves - Voxtrot

This is a nice blend of lovely pop sensibility and dark themes. There’s sort of a “can’t we all have more fun amid all this f*cking hell” spirit to it. I think literature could use a nice heaping dose of that sort of energy. Not to mention the fact that “we are young and
stupid / and raised by wolves” sums up the first half of my autobiography in nine simple words.

House of Wolves - My Chemical Romance

Though it’s free verse (I think trying to write that much meter would make my head explode) my book does its best to follow the Pixies rhythm of “Soft Loud Soft.” This would be the loud part.

Wolves - Josh Ritter

This would be the soft part.

Werewolf - Cat Power

Ah, you see the symmetry here. I first heard this song first when my friend Kevin was singing with his wife as the Michael Hurley original played in their kitchen. Watching them was a lovely and harmonious moment for me, the epitome of all the sort of perfect goodness domesticity could provide. The song became sort of a totem for all that. I couldn’t believe it when I heard Cat Power’s cover. It was like she was crawling around in my brain looking for whatever was interesting. I’d love to make her some toast.

Toby Barlow and Sharp Teeth links:

the book's website
the book's MySpace page
the book's page at its UK publisher
the book's page at its US publisher
excerpt from the book

Entertainment Weekly review
Fantasy Book Critic review
Los Angeles Times review
Musings of a Bookish Kitty review
The New Statesman review
New York magazine review
The Skinny review review
Sunday Herald review
Times Online review

The Independent profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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