In "Babayaga," Toby Barlow revives an old Russian legend about fearsome witches and transports them to 1950s Paris. At the center of the novel is Will, a young American ad man who’ll probably soon be heading home to Detroit. He’s a likable, drifting twentysomething, the kind of guy who might meet a fellow expat in a bar and tag along for an evening of drinking and wooing girls.
Enter Zoya, whom Will pursues avidly — thanks in part to her spells, woven because she likes him, too. Zoya is with an older lover in the book’s first pages, post-coital, worried that he’s finally noticed she hasn’t aged in decades. She looks sweet, but she’s innately dangerous: She swiftly dispenses with the old man by impaling his head on a spike.
She learned everything she knows from Elga, an ancient, evil crone. With an apartment crammed with potions, a black rat for a familiar and a decidedly nasty disposition, Elga is a witch in the classic mode. Just to keep things interesting, she’s got a modern touch or two: For a jolt of energy, she snorts dried, powdered snake.
When Zoya’s indiscreetly disposed lover leads a police detective named Vidot to Elga’s door, the elder witch flies into a fury and turns him into a flea.
As with any good farce, the plot isn’t really the point, but it can best be described as a tangle of pursuits. Elga seeks revenge on Zoya, the police try to find Vidot, Vidot wants to be human again, and enchanted Will and Zoya chase each other. Meanwhile, Will’s expat friend Oliver (the one he went drinking with) runs a literary journal by day and is a CIA operative by night; he soon sweeps Will up in his Cold War shenanigans.
All of this could be a hot mess, but Barlow is adept at combining unexpected genres: His first novel, "Sharp Teeth," was about werewolves in Los Angeles, told entirely in verse. On his second time out as a novelist, Barlow easily keeps all the balls in the air (while balancing on stilts and whistling a happy tune). The blend of James Bond, folk tale, Gogol’s humor and surrealism with a corny French detective and a young man’s love story all improbably works.
— Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
Barlow will speak and sign copies of his new novel at 7 p.m. Friday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
Buster busts out
Tony Hale talks. Emmy-nominated actor Hale (this season for "Veep") might be best known for his role as Buster Bluth on "Arrested Development"; in fact, he’s in Austin for a Saturday event, "Hey Brother, an Evening with Buster," at Stateside at the Paramount. While he’s here, he’ll tape an episode of "Overheard with Evan Smith." That happens at 5:15 p.m. Friday at KLRU’s Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus. It’s free to attend, but an RSVP is required at www.klru.org. Ticket’s for Saturday’s show, in which Hale will show scenes from "Arrested Development" and take part in a Q&A, are $30 to $75. Check availability at www.austintheatre.org.
Next week in Austin360
We’ll check out two popular fests centered on two popular foods — hot sauce and ice cream. The Austin Ice Cream is back next weekend for its seventh year of sweetness, to be followed the weekend after by the 23rd incarnation of the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival.