Showing posts with label Flitcraft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flitcraft. Show all posts

01 May 2020

Our Flitcraft Moment


I think there’s an argument that we’re all turning into Flitcraft. You remember him, don’t you? He was the everyman character mentioned briefly and so enigmatically about a third of the way into The Maltese Falcon. Flitcraft was at the center of a missing person job that stayed with Sam Spade long after the job tied up.

Spade shares the tale from his past with Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Chapter 7, while the two of them are waiting in a hotel room for Joel Cairo (aka Peter Lorre) to come over. It’s a story that has delighted and puzzled mystery lovers for ages, since the anecdote seemingly comes out of nowhere and doesn’t dovetail neatly with the rest of the plot. Hammett is known for being such a spare, tight writer, so he must have had a reason for sticking this bit in. So goes the argument.

I’ve read dozens of articles, academic or otherwise, about the so-called Flitcraft Parable over the years, and the analyses differ greatly, depending on who’s doing the thinking. That’s part of the Parable’s charm. It’s like Melville’s white whale—overdetermined as hell, and deeper, richer, fuller in nuance than any of us can imagine. Mostly, the Flitcraft Parable gets you thinking about how humans react to mortal peril, which, call me crazy, sorta kinda fits the zeitgeist.

Flitcraft left his real-estate office in Tacoma one day and disappeared. When Spade finally tracked him down, the poor sap confessed why he suddenly abandoned his job, wife, two kids, new Packard, and country club membership in Tacoma. All it took was a brush with death. A near miss.

Out on that street in Tacoma, Flitcraft narrowly missed being squashed flat by a falling beam from a nearby construction job. The beam took out a chunk of sidewalk, and sent a concrete chip into his cheek, leaving a scar. If I may oh-so-melodramatically surmise, in a flash Flitcraft saw that the life he was living was a pathetic sham. He was not the man he ever wanted to be. If life could be snuffed out so unpredictably, well, damn it, he was going to Stop Living the Lie! From this moment forward, he was going to do things differently. Get back to his roots. He was going to shake things up.



Sort of the way I was going to do six weeks back when my wife and I decided to grow our own food in the garden. Supermarket shortages be damned! We didn’t need to play the industrial food game! We’d fill our bellies with nutrients coaxed from the earth by our own two hands. That was right before we learned that the nation was facing a shortage of garden seeds.

No problem! We’d bake our own bread. Guess what? Remarkably, the nation is facing a shortage of flour and yeast. Well…okay, maybe we’d raise chickens the way we’d always talked about doing. Henceforth, we former big-city types were going to transform ourselves into rustic homesteaders! We’d gorge ourselves silly on golden-brown frittatas while we played jigsaw puzzles at night, mended our frayed garments, and exercised obsessively. Oh, and the whole while I’d grow myself a luxurious lockdown man-beard.

Well, you can imagine how that all played out. For every single thing I contemplated doing as an expression of my highly personal, spanking-new creative identity, everyone else on the planet was thinking of doing exactly same thing, causing runs on everything from backyard chickens, to jigsaw puzzles, to sewing supplies, to exercise equipment. And experts were reminding newbie beard-growers to disinfect their new scruff before they hugged loved ones.

Don’t get get me wrong. This pandemic is radically altering many people’s lives and careers. My state has never seen so many unemployment claims, as is yours, I’m sure. Businesses in our lovely mountain town have been devastated by the lack of tourists who were historically their biggest class of clientele. Brewers, tour guides, chefs, bartenders, and baristas are out of work, and desperate. Already I’ve heard of a local businessman, a dear friend, who is considering shuttering his shattered business and moving to Europe with his young, EU-born wife, especially if a certain politician is reelected in the fall. People like my friend are going full frontal Flitcraft: disaster sparks change.

The rest of us are flirting with Flitcraft Lite. Near disaster sparks change of a sort. Change, I might add, that may not outlive the pandemic. After all, the final biting irony of Hammett’s parable is that after resolving to change his life, Flitcraft ended up replicating exactly the same life he left behind. In his new life in Spokane, Flitcraft had set himself up in a successful car dealership, with a lovely new wife who was expecting their first child. Spade’s assessment of the outcome is marvelous:

His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.

I’m probably distorting the crux of Hammett’s parable, but the beams sure are falling big time right now. And I think there’s some truth to the notion that we humans are binary creatures. We are at heart either changing, or not. From an evolutionary perspective, true behavior change is time-consuming and dangerous. If you’re a Neanderthal hunter of big game, the tribe will go hungry while you learn how to hook and land your first coelacanth.


Look up, Mr. Flitcraft.Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

In the wacko HBO sci-fi series Westworld, based on the old Michael Crichton film from the 1970s, nefarious engineers conspire to implant the behaviors of real-life people (“guests”) into robot doppelgängers (“hosts”). Imagine! Your body dies, yet your brain lives on in a robot. A chance to live forever! A chance to live the life you were always meant to have. A chance, dare I say, to Shake Things Up!

Thing is, late in the second season, the mad geniuses discover to their horror that the zillionaire they brought back to life makes the same boneheaded decisions he made in life. Conclusion: Humans don’t change.

I understand the instinct of the individual to revert to previous behavior. I totally get that. I’ve made and abandoned far too many New Years resolutions not to. But what I am finding fascinating is the herd instinct toward sameness even in what is theoretically a very personal and trying moment of change. Somewhere in our DNA, the survival code is apparently written thusly: <alone:same> and <species:same>.

In a million lifetimes, a million simulations, O’Shaughnessy will always double-cross Spade, and while the thought of it probably makes our antihero a little sad, he’s expecting it.

In a million pandemics, a million Americans—hell, a million urbanites, suburbanites, Canadians, Minnesotans, D’Agneses, or genetically-enhanced, intelligent rutabagas—will all tend to make the same choices when their world is upended. They will panic-buy jigsaw puzzles and toilet paper. They will resolve to be better people. They will hug their children close, and privately wish theyd go back to school.

I’m sure that in one of those robot simulations, O’Shaughnessy is wearing a homemade shift dress and collecting free-range eggs out of a nesting box. But not for long. When the beams stop falling, she will revert to form, snatch up a gat, and come gunning for some unsuspecting sap. No wonder Spade drinks, and why I need one too.

***

Postscript: Mexico and Canada recently ratified the USMCA, a new pact the cheeky are calling NAFTA 2.0. I am not an attorney, but it appears that this joint legislation goes into effect in June 2020. When it does, I believe this means that Hammetts book, currently in the public domain in Canada, will no longer be. (I am waiting for someone with actual expertise to weigh in on the matter. Lawyers, please speak up.) However, dedicated mystery fans should bear in mind that because of the public domain declaration, countless crappy paperback and ebook versions of this classic novel are flooding the Interwebs. Most of these versions were poorly produced; their “publishers simply scanned copies of the paperback, and uploaded them to various retailers without bothering to proofread them. Please dont buy these editions; if the reviews are any indication, you’ll be greatly disappointed by the quality. The only authorized editions are the ones published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (ie, Penguin Random House). This page will direct you to the correct edition at the retailer of your choice. And of course, the official prices of the authorized book are much higher than the bootleg editions. But come on. Did you really think you could grab the Falcon for 99 cents? Don’t be a palooka.

23 May 2013

Random Observations


by Eve Fisher

Update:  (This was to have been published on 5/9/13, but current events got in the way.)

I've been on vacation for the last couple of weeks, and I only got a chance to check in a couple of times, but all I can say, from reading my co-writers' blogs, is that (1) they know a lot more about writing than I do and (2) I've got to start writing more.  I don't outline - although I may try to start doing that; I don't journal about my writing - though I may start doing that, too.  What do I do?  Well, I try to write something every day, even on vacation.  (I keep a journal, just not specifically about my writing.)  And I try to pay attention.  I watch.  I listen in.  I mull a lot.  And I try to describe it, at least to myself.


We were on a cruise in the Caribbean, which we had won on our last cruise, playing the cruise lottery.  It was a great cruise, but then I love cruises, because all you have to do is unpack once.  After that, it's up to you when you want to eat, what you want to do, and if you want to do nothing at all, there's the deck chairs, the poolside chairs, the top deck chairs, the library chairs, and, if worst comes to absolute worst, your room.  And I like doing nothing, when this means sitting in a chair and watching the ocean and watching people.

And 1200 people on a cruise ship can indeed represent the entire gamut of humanity.  As opposed to the endless "People of Wal-Mart" photos, the cruise clientele range from the Felliniesque to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and everything in between.  Every weight - which rises over the course of the cruise, as we all know - every age, every height, every nationality.  And once in a while, something unique.  Something that says, check this out:

The very thin Asian girl, who was with a very pasty older Englishman, who came to breakfast, took 2 HUGE pieces of cake, went to a back table, and was gone 30 seconds later leaving an empty plate.  (Obvious questions: Was the cake in her bag or in her stomach?  Was she headed back to the room or to the bathroom first?)

The relentless smile on the face of an Indonesian steward, which relapsed into an existential exhaustion any time he was left alone for a few seconds.

The old man who sat for hours aft every day, looking out at the wake of the boat, with all the hunger of Edward for Bella.


The monarchs of the ship, the headliner entertainment, a married couple, strolling around the ship doing their best to look stylish and hot and powerful and above all the hoi polloi who were their audience.

An older woman, a deep dyed glorious blonde, generously proportioned, lavishly painted, dressed in a rainbow, with a laugh that would have made Bette Davis come over and offer her a cigarette.  (Fun to talk to, too.)

An Aussie who assured me that I needed to make the trip to Australia sooner than later, because time was fleeting...  and later told me the story of his wandering life as we stood thigh deep in the Caribbean.

The last didn't surprise me a bit - I heard a lot of people's life stories on the trip, and I always do when I'm traveling.  Maybe I look trustworthy, maybe not; maybe I just look interested.  (Which I am.  I am insatiably curious, and I am always willing to down tools and listen to someone's story or read a book.)  Maybe it's because I'm a stranger and they'll never see me again.  Maybe it's because they're traveling, and they need to assure themselves of who they are.  Or, in some cases, they're rehearsing a new persona.  Seriously. 

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to a writer's colony (one and only time, at Ossabaw Island, Georgia), and while I was there, I had a memorable conversation with a woman.  She was married, and it was the first time she'd been away from the family in years, and she was at first bewildered, then bemused, and then bedazzled by the realization that, since no one knew her there, she could be anyone she wanted.  For the first time, she could choose who and what to be.  (I'd already done that years before, but that's another story.)  We agreed, it was interesting, and she should pursue the opportunity as far as she could.

File:MalteseFalcon1930.jpgHow far was that?  Hard to say.  The flip side of changing who you are - running off and becoming someone knew - is what is called nowadays "The Flitcraft Parable" in Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" - Mr. Flitcraft, who is almost killed by a falling beam one day and leaves his job, wife, children, everything, without a word and vanishes:

"He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, "and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

Or, in other words, you can run, but you can't hide, at least not from who you really are. Was Hammett right or not?  Can you reinvent yourself, or do you simply put on an existential wig?  Discuss, children, and we will talk more later.