When I was a child my babushka would tell me tales of the Baba Yaga, a mythical, hideous female creature and old witch-like ghost. Her detailed descriptions, even without visuals, would scare the bajeeezus out of me. My grandmother’s thick Russian Serbo-Croatian accent only added to the horror and creepiness of the tales she told.
Illustration by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin 1900.
The other night I was reminded of my grandmother’s stories as I sat in a Haight/Ashbury bookstore, listening to writer Toby Barlow read from his new Kafkaesque novel; Babayaga. The bookstore was buzzed with friends, fans and colleagues from Barlow’s days when he worked in the ad-biz in San Francisco back in the last century.
I met Toby Barlow in the early 1990s, when he was the advertising copy-writing partner of my friend Ron Walter, an art director whose musical and art esthetic matched my own. Ron, Toby and I shared a few cocktails and meals together on occasion, but Toby and I were not close and never hung out as a duo.
We’d get together only when Ron would drag me in as the outsider on his creative duo’s nocturnal excursions. I recall several intense political debates between Barlow and myself as Mr. Walter sat quietly keeping neutral like Switzerland. These heated conversations about art, politics and many other social issues would escalate over the few times we shared meals together. We’d each be very passionate about our opinions and we both would hold our firm ground. It wasn’t always a pretty ending.
Ron Walter had his visual art, Toby Barlow had his writings and I was a wannabe artist without a discipline. I was essentially the salesman (see Willy Loman). But it had its moments.
Toby Barlow now lives in Detroit and champions the city’s rebirth as he runs Team Detroit, a major advertising agency. He continues to support and promote the turnaround of this once great city.
I have since discovered that Barlow’s books come from his passion for offbeat artistic journeys with characters who sometimes end their lives with humorous violent results. Beautiful women, witches, Admen, CIA operatives and expatriates all have their own stories that eventually overlap and come together in a way that only Mr. Barlow can illustrate.
I am always in awe of those who can balance both art and commerce, and Toby Barlow seems to have managed to accomplished both.
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, the author of Sharp Teeth, a novel of love, spies, and witches in 1950s Paris—and a cop turned into a flea.
Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. But Will doesn’t think he’s a warrior—he’s just a good-hearted Detroit ad guy who can’t seem to figure out Parisian girls.
Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les boulevards, sad-eyed, coming off a bad breakup. In fact, she impaled her ex on a spike. Zoya, it turns out, has been a beautiful young woman for hundreds of years; she and her far more traditionally witchy-looking companion, Elga, have been thriving unnoticed in the bloody froth of Europe’s wars.
Inspector Vidot is a hardworking Paris police detective who cherishes quiet nights at home. But when he follows a lead from a grisly murder to the abode of an ugly old woman, he finds himself turned into a flea.
Oliver is a patrician, fun-loving American who has come to Paris to start a literary journal with the help of friends in D.C. who ask a few favors in return. He’s in well over his head, but it’s nothing that a cocktail can’t fix. Right?
Add a few chance encounters, a chorus of some more angry witches, a strung-out jazzman or two, a weaponized LSD program, and a cache of rifles buried in the Bois de Bologne—and that’s a novel! But while Toby Barlow’s Babayaga may start as just a joyful romp though the City of Light, it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.
If and when Hollywood ever makes Barlow’s Babayaga into a major motion picture, I certainly hope it transcends the last film from the 1970s, with that same title.