On Dan P. Lee’s “Travis the Menace” (New York, January 2011)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: Travis was one of the most beloved apes in the country—a superstar in his hometown, Stamford, Conn. Sandy Herold and her husband, Jerry, raised Travis since he was just a few months old. A happy ape, he never showed any signs of violence, loved meeting people, was mischievous at times, but liked joking around. Then, many years later, he mauled Sandy’s friend, whom he knew, almost to death on Sandy’s front lawn.

From New York Magazine.

From New York Magazine

Perhaps not for non-journo readers, but for folks like us journalists, what’s immediately curious about this story is that there is nothing that resembles a nut graf. We don’t even hear about Travis, the title man, er, ape, of the story until the second section. We don’t know that Travis almost kills a woman until it actually happens in the story’s present time, and foreshadowing is only used once toward the end to hint at the culminating event.

In a previous post, On Skip Hollandsworth’s “The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob,” we discussed the “classic storytelling” approach: chronology. But in “Cowboy Bob” we know the whole story of Peggy Jo Tallas before Hollandsworth begins the chronology from the time Peggy Jo was a young girl. Here, we rely wholly on Lee’s fluidity and commitment to the scene at hand, without ever getting ahead of himself. The problem with a lot of totally chronological stories is that they begin to sound like this: “and then this happened. Then, so-and-so did this. Now, we’re here, and then this happened.” Far from the case in this story. The excitement that Lee packs into each scene is what keeps the story moving forward. We don’t need to be told that Travis will eventually become a violent ape in order to stay on our heels. It’s an “enjoy the ride” kind of deal.

Not to confuse that with everything being blissful. Tragedy is what defines many of the story’s turning points. Sandy’s daughter, Suzan, dies in a car accident. Jerry dies of stomach cancer. Sandy becomes a recluse. At this point, we can feel the story on a downward slope. Emphasis is shifted from a happy Travis to the emerging disconnect between Sandy and Travis, as both cope with losing Jerry. A prime example of Lee’s focus on the present scene—before revealing why it is significant—is when Sandy begins to feel as though she can no longer take care of Travis:

When almost a year had passed, Sandy sat down to write a letter. She drafted it in longhand, and addressed it to a woman in Florida who runs a respected chimpanzee sanctuary. These were the last two paragraphs. … [paragraphs] … She signed the letter, “Sandy (Jerry) and Travis,” and enclosed photos of Travis and the family. She wrote out a check for $250, signing it from both her and Travis. She put everything in a stamped envelope. She never mailed the letter and never made the trip.

Telling us that Sandy would never mail this letter before the passage would have marred the illustration of Sandy’s deep emotional tie and affection for Travis, which I found to come through the strongest in this part.

But the event that it all comes down to is the biggest turning point of all: Travis’ inexplicable violent outburst. (Disclaimer: I don’t mean roaring; I mean grotesquely violent. Don’t continue if you just ate lunch.)

Notice the simple word choice in the above passage. This comes in handy when Lee is creating a fast-paced scene that lasts for at least a quarter of the story’s length. But his sentences are so succinct, and the suspense is so vividly building, that our bulging eyes fly through this:

Hysterical, Sandy ran back to the house. She grabbed a butcher knife. She ran back, screaming all the while. As Travis stood over Charla, chewing, ripping, pulling, Sandy plunged the knife into his back. He did not stop. She pulled the knife out and stabbed him twice more, to little effect. Travis stood up finally, turned to look Sandy in the face—directly in the face—then continued.

“Sandy ran,” “She grabbed,” “She ran back,” “Sandy plunged”—these actions don’t need any dressing up. Lee drafts a major chunk of Sandy’s conversation with the 911 operator, and we can hear the hysteria in this, too. The dramatic scene speaks for itself. After it’s all over, after Travis dies, after Sandy dies—(“At the ER, tests determined Sandy’s aorta was bulging. She was prepared for emergency surgery. In the operating room, two hours in, Sandy’s lungs filled with blood. And then they were all gone. All the Herolds were gone.” Talk about ending the section on a punch.)—and after Charla, the mauled woman, goes through recovery, Lee writes from a present-day view, revisiting 241 Rock Rimmon Road, Sandy’s now-ghosttown home. A complete start-to-finish, straight-line story. You don’t see these done very often. Check it out.

This story is also available in The Sager Group’s Next Wave: America’s Next Generation of Great Literary Journalists in more detailed form.