Our latest Notable Narrative is “Animals,” Chris Jones’ account of the creatures set loose from a private menagerie last fall in Zanesville, Ohio.
The Esquire story works in part because Jones plays its two tones so sharply against each other – small-town mundane reality is upended by sudden drama. But Jones’ writing really pops because of its tight focus and discipline. He doesn’t bother establishing the daily rhythms that are upset by what follows – he just opens with the animals’ release, or at least as close as he can get to it: nervous horses in flight before the predators appear.
A retired schoolteacher in the neighborhood is not surprised to see horses running the fields. Even when he sees a bear chasing them moments later, he is alarmed but not shocked – everyone knew that Terry Thompson kept bears and other wild animals on his property. But when a full-grown lion stalks him from a few feet away, we go down the rabbit hole of fear with him. How many animals are loose?
The police, too, take the 911 reports in stride until the number of escaped predators continues to grow. A wolf is killed, a bear is shot, a lioness tracked and executed under a porch farther down the road. And then they run into the tigers. Jones plays out the revelation of just how bad the situation is bit by bit, putting us on the ground with those deputized to contain the problem as they realize what they’re facing.
What Jones doesn’t do is instructive. The words “power” and “powerful” do not appear in the piece; neither does the word “fierce.” “Strong” shows up only once, describing a muzzle blast. The term “beautiful” in reference to the animals clocks in once, and then only as part of a quote. Jones doesn’t waste words telling readers how to feel about what happens. Instead, he sticks with the momentum of events on the ground, delivering the unforgettable image of a tiger lit by headlights stripped down to its “disrobed spine” by a bullet.
Lions rear in the snipers’ faces; tigers get up after they have been shot; recaged animals turn out to be perfectly capable of exiting their pens. In a horror movie plot, the tension is the same – the main characters are in jeopardy from some superhuman external threat – but Jones tempers the monstrousness with a terrible sorrow:
Now Merry saw a shape in the camera. At first, he couldn’t tell what it was; it was just a large mass, red hot, coming down the slope, out through the trees. Whatever it was, it wasn’t fast like a cat. It was lumbering. But it was big and it was relentless, inching closer, step by step. Eventually, Merry realized it was a bear — a huge bear, a grizzly. He and the other deputy took aim at the red target on their camera. They fired, and they watched the bear crash to the ground. They watched it through their camera for a long time after. It finally began turning orange, then yellow, on its way to disappearing altogether, as cold as the leaves.
The depth of the sorrow is amplified by Jones’ willingness to use humor. The highway sign alerting passing motorists reads “CAUTION EXOTIC ANIMALS.” A coroner is called to deal with Terry Thompson’s dead body, but with animals still at large, he “declined the invitation to the farm.” A few miles away, a group of poker buddies hear what has happened and head over to Thompson’s farm, attempting to escape with one of the lion carcasses.
Despite occasionally relieving the tension with a lighter moment, the picture Jones paints is not of a hot-dogging safari junket but snapshots from a nightmare. It’s a portrait of what happens when everyday life gives way to terror and death, and unlucky people confront danger to deliver the least bad outcome they can muster.