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November 15, 2010

The Flitcraft Parable

Michael Kurtianyk

So, since the election is over, I have had the opportunity to return to something I enjoy doing tremendously: reading. During the course of the campaign, I would stay up to read documents and pdf files emailed to me about everything to do with issues and politics. I stayed up to get caught up on Facebook, Twitter, local politics, and the like.


Now that I don’t have to read all of that as often, I read with my daughters before they go to sleep, and then I read my book. This week, I’m reading (re-reading, actually) Dashiell Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon. I also took out the movie from the Middletown Branch Library, but I will watch that (watch again, actually) after I finish the book.


Chapter Seven of The Maltese Falcon finds the hero of our story, Detective Sam Spade, waiting in a hotel room with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, for someone to stop by. While they wait, Spade tells a story which has become known as “The Flitcraft Parable.” It goes something like this:


A real estate agent by the name of Flitcraft goes out to lunch one day and never returns. He left behind a wife and two boys in Tacoma, WA. As Spade put it: “He went like that, like a fist when you open your hand.”


Five years later, Spade, who worked for a large detective agency at that time, was approached by Mrs. Flitcraft, who said that someone matching his description was seen in Spokane. Spade went to find him and, sure enough, it was Flitcraft. He’d been living under a different name (Charles Pierce), sold cars, married, and had a baby boy.


So, what happened? It turns out that on his way to lunch, he passed by a construction site, and he was nearly hit by a falling beam. He’d lived a life of normalcy and consistency, but then he realized that life could end in a moment. So, he changed his entire life by leaving it behind and not looking back. Life can be arbitrary at times, and we adjust to it.


The Flitcraft Parable ends: “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”


There are a couple of reasons why I was struck by this chapter. One is that it seems to come out of nowhere. The first six chapters were fast-paced, with clipped conversations. The seventh begins with this parable, and it slowed the novel down.


There had to be a reason why Hammett chose to take this moment in the story to digress in this way. My interpretation is that he wanted to show that people don’t really change, even after life-changing events. Flitcraft went back to the routine of marriage, job, etc. No matter what happens, humans are creatures of habit, and don’t really change.


The second reason that I was struck by this chapter is that this is what I’d been doing since the election: I went back to my family (having missed them so), and my real estate work, and reading books like this one. The campaign made me a better person, but it hasn’t really changed me. I am ready for the next set of challenges in my life, and I look forward to them.


The campaign was a beam falling, so I adjusted to falling beams. They’ve stopped falling, and now I’m adjusting to them not falling….


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