In 2003 novelist and playwright Joe Meno, like Billy Argo, the protagonist of his new novel, The Boy Detective Fails, was about to turn 30, and he recalls feeling that “everything seemed really gray, not personally, but just looking at the world.” He felt America had made progress in the 90s and it had been wiped away by the Bush administration, the September 11 attacks, and the looming war in Iraq.
This, he says, led to the formation in his head of a certain character, someone seemingly washed up early in adulthood. That might seem like an odd leap, but at the time Meno was probably also thinking a lot about the pressures of early success. He sold his first novel to Saint Martin’s Press at age 22, and his second, How the Hula Girl Sings, was published by HarperCollins four years later. Both did fairly well, but he was increasingly frustrated with the lack of control he had over the process, from editing to jacket design, and by the increasingly marginalized place literary fiction held in the industry at large. When his HarperCollins editor quit shortly after Hula came out, he says, “I felt like there weren’t a lot of options for me there either, unless I was going to become a professional wrestler.” He abandoned the New York publishing universe for the upstart local Punk Planet Books imprint in 2003. His third novel and first for Punk Planet, Hairstyles of the Damned, has since sold 70,000 copies, making him a hero of indie lit.
Dear to Meno’s heart was childhood reading fare like the Encyclopedia Brown puzzle stories and the Hardy Boys mysteries. “No matter what, those two brothers always solved the crime. And it’s so satisfying because as a kid you’re this powerless person, and you read these books and these kids always find the solution.” But what if they couldn’t?
The result of his brooding was a short story about, in Meno’s words, “a guy whose sister has died and he would just ride around on buses and trains watching people.” It was a bare-bones treatment of his idea, and after finishing it he started to write a play around the same sad character, in a process that he says helps him flesh out characters and compose definite scenes. “As a fiction writer, that’s the way I understand what a story is. It helps me figure out the skeleton, what this thing is really going to be about.”
The fleshing out resulted in a play about a former kid sleuth confronting adulthood and the mysterious suicide of his little sister. It was far more complex than any Meno had written before, with numerous set changes, an introductory film, and onstage snowfall. He knew House Theatre of Chicago playwright Phil Klapperich through Columbia College, where both attended grad school (and where Meno now teaches), and had enjoyed what he’d seen of the company’s shows, expansive mythical tales like their “Valentine Trilogy,” which incorporated live music and video. It was “like seeing a blockbuster onstage,” he says. “And I thought, if anybody could produce this thing it would be these guys.”
The Boy Detective Fails opened in May to mostly favorable reviews. Nathan Allen directed and Kevin O’Donnell composed a harpsichord-and-strings score that was played live during performances.
Meanwhile, Meno had been working on the story’s third manifestation–a novel published by Punk Planet in September and now in its second printing. That work led to a rewrite of the script “based on what I had figured out in the novel”–namely that Billy’s struggle to understand his sister’s death was the through line of the story. The long prose form also allowed him to throw in typographical tricks, like white space and blocks of text meant to resemble buildings, that not even Allen–with his “uncanny sense of what looks good onstage”–could’ve pulled off in live performance. He was also able to expand the number of characters to include an 11-year-old nerdy genius and her mute bully of a younger brother, whom Meno says he now sees, based on conversations with audience members at readings, as the real stars of the book.
“I’m not very precious with my writing,” he says. “I know that to write one good story I’m going to probably write eight or nine bad ones. But that’s the only way I can figure stuff out. It’s just process.” And the process goes on. Meno says that at readings to promote the book he finds himself substituting new phrases for what’s in print. “It’s never done.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.