Several years ago, at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, I summoned the guts to approach Romulus Linney (after a not-soft nudge from Wil Eno--magical night, that) and ask him about his approach to adapting novels for the stage. Linney had done this successfully several times over, and I had an inkling about a project I might like to undertake. He said, and I am paraphrasing, "When you adapt a novel for the stage, you're either in a marriage, or you're having an affair. You're either trying to be true to the thing in its entirety, or you are getting in and getting out, and taking what you need." I have never forgotten that exchange.
About two weeks ago, I finished the first draft of what will be my second adaptation (not the thing I had in mind when I made my brave approach) and I can say confidently that this one is a marriage. I think I have transcribed about 3/4 of the novel, word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark. It was exhausting and my fingers hurt, but I know this book more intimately than almost any book I've ever read. Now, I just need to cut about 30 pages. They say sometimes that making cuts to your own work is the toughest thing. I'm not sure this isn't tougher. I fell in love with this book because of the language, and each pencil "X" I’m drawing is stinging quite a lot.
I'm not going to name it here, primarily because I am still discerning for certain that it is in the public domain, but it is set in Chicago, in the mid-1940s, and there are lots of descriptions of routes taken on foot. In this era, Michigan Avenue was Michigan Boulevard, and Lake Shore Drive, and the shoreline itself, were not the shape they are now. Delightfully, however, there are many locations in the novel that are easily findable and seem to be in relatively the same shape they were in the mid-1940s. Recently, my son Declan (also a fan of the book in question) and I went on a “nerd tour” and took some photos of places in the book that still exist. God bless him for dealing with a giddy mother, shoving him out of the car with camera in hand, and screaming like Santa just showed up when something appeared as described. Here's some of what we found.
The narrator lives in a flat on Wells, near Kinzie and a few doors down from the el tracks:
The murder victim (spoiler!) is found in an alley bordered by Orleans and Franklin, and Huron and Erie:
Characters meet at Dearborn Station, still completely in tact, although without trains:
And in the penultimate scene in the novel, the seasoned veteran takes the newbie somewhere fancy, to show him "the world without a little red fence around it." The narrator describes going to the Allerton Hotel, and taking a special elevator to a swanky cocktail bar. It's never named, but it most definitely is The Tip-Top-Tap, still here.
I should have confirmation on the legality of using this source material in the next few weeks. I don't want to shut it down, but if I have to, I'll have taken myself and Dec on a personal literary tour of a wonderful, and long forgotten, Chicago novel.