The Sticking Place

In 1967, Jack Couffer published his novel The Concrete Wilderness.

In The Concrete Wilderness, by Jack Couffer, a Seattle photographer comes to New York with a brilliant idea for a magazine assignment. He will photograph wild life that has somehow survived in the metropolis: peregrine falcons that prey on Times Square pigeons, butterflies that hatch in apartment house canopies, marine life that endures the sewage. If Mr. Couffer’s grasp of character and local geography were equal to his flair for natural history, this might have been an intriguing book. Unfortunately, the story is as primary as a juvenile and arid except when the author is writing of the animal world – which he does well indeed.

The photographer finds a naturalist’s cache in a vacant lot on the Harlem River, as well as a forest ranger’s son (from out of town) who has befriended a wild dog. He also finds a taxi driver who agrees to come back to the river bank in three hours. (“It was an odd place to deliver fares, but the driver gave no hint of curiosity or surprise.”) Now there’s a rare bird.

Martin Levin, The New York Times, 1 October 1967

Paramount Studios purchased the rights to Couffer’s book even before it was published, clearly thinking it would, in the right hands, make a good film. The studio was, presumably, intrigued by a film that Couffer had himself written and directed for Disney, The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle. Paramount executive Peter Bart (who had written about Wexler when at The New York Times) eventually offered the book to Haskell, who embarked on adapting it. The film that emerged, however, bears little relationship to Couffer’s story. As Wexler told Time magazine the month Medium Cool was released, Paramount “already had a considerable investment in it and nowhere to go. I told them nothing interested me about the original, but they told me to go ahead and write whatever I wanted. So I sat down to do a little something about what’s happening in this country today. I wanted to sort of make everything turn on the Chicago convention, because I had the feeling it was going to be very bad.”

The Concrete Wilderness is available here, courtesy of Jack Couffer.