Ride a Cockhorse

[Editor’s Note:  A new editions of Raymond Kennedy’s exuberantly comic 1991 novel Ride a Cockhorse will be published next week by New York Review of Books Press.  Katherine A. Powers (whose column A Reading Life appears in the Review twice monthly) wrote this introduction, reproduced here by the kind permission of the publisher.]

During the last decade or so of his life, Raymond Kennedy would occasionally and ceremoniously roll out of Brooklyn in his Lincoln Town Car and travel to western Massachusetts where I would see him now and again. He was drawn there by the countryside and the hill-andvalley towns of his youth, the region that provides the setting for all but one of his eight novels, including this one, his comic masterpiece. He told me that the most arresting memory of his childhood was seeing an enormous boat carried overland, progressing in state slowly and hugely past his house along Enfield Road near the Quabbin Reservoir. He was only five or six years old and stunned by its size and the surreality of its presence before him. It was, it turned out, a police boat bound for the recently completed reservoir whose supply of water for faraway Boston had submerged four little towns, including Enfield, the one toward which this road once traveled.

It is not likely that the breathtaking sight of this vessel on its way to preside over four drowned towns shaped Kennedy’s vision of the world, but it is just like him to recall it and its imperious journey with so much satisfaction. In his novels he is the master, usually celebratory, of the brazen, the impertinent and majestically presumptuous. And, as it happens, he liked especially to confer these qualities on his fictional women, creating as fantastic a bevy of dominatrixes as the world of letters has ever seen. From Flower of the Republic comes Pansy Truax, lubricious, titanic brawler, and Mrs. French, elderly, steely seductress; from Lulu Incognito, Mrs. Gansevoort, devourer of innocence, the very “flesh-and-blood epitome of a great destructive principle loosed upon earth”; and from this book, its turbulent heroine, Mrs. Frances “Frankie” Fitzgibbons.

Ride a Cockhorse, first published in 1991, is Kennedy’s sixth novel. It is set in the autumn of 1987 in a small city in Massachusetts’s Connecticut Valley where Mrs. Fitzgibbons, a widow and loan officer at a solid savings-and-loan bank, has gone mad, visited at the age of fortyfive by sudden mania. Once kind, polite, and deferential, she is suddenly transformed into a powerhouse of ambition and a dynamo of sexual energy. She discovers in herself a “big thrilling voice,” astounding powers of eloquence, and radiant sexual magnetism; these she wields to persuade and persecute with unhinged abandon.

Mrs. Fitzgibbons is the managerial version of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts; arbitrary and vindictive, she is never more truly her own megalomaniac self than when calling for somebody’s head. Her three-week reign of terror over the Parish Bank can be seen as a grotesque expression of the spirit that seized America in the 1980s, that of the ruthless downsizers and predatory takeover artists who annihilated jobs, and of the cavalier bankers who destroyed hundreds of savings-and-loan institutions. This wondrous, horrifying woman, amoral and insanely overreaching, is—as she herself might put it—all business. She revels in its buccaneer spirit, firing people willy-nilly, cutting multimillion-dollar deals, swiveling back and forth in her chair, “tossing out cliches in a quietly boastful manner.” She is sexually aroused by financial waffle and flimflam, by the celebration of innovation and audacity. Her short reign encompasses the stock-market crash of October 1987, whose furious disarray relieves her twinges of fear and paranoia: “The reality of what was happening to certain big corporations out there was perversely reassuring. The telephone in her fist felt like a weapon, like a heavy black hammer, something solid and useful.”

If Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s charade of being a banker is a satire on banking itself, especially as it broke loose from government regulation to ravage the land, her rise to power and demented, despotic rule can also be seen as a version of Hitler’s. That element is certainly there, handily inserted throughout in Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s denunciations and tirades, and as she gathers her select forces around her. Still, Ride a Cockhorse is the furthest thing from an allegory. It is surreal, certainly, but it is also firmly seated in its location, a small New England city very much like Holyoke, Massachusetts, the once-proud manufacturing town in which Kennedy spent a portion of his youth. He is fond of its people; they are his characters, and he describes their personalities, appearance, and little ways with wit and precision. And he rejoices in their speech: the novel is spangled with such venerable ornaments of American slang as “jamokes,” “galoots,” “welshers,” and “boogums.”

We can detect, amid the comedy and verbal pyrotechnics, the author’s nostalgic regret that American cities have lost their dignity. The Parish Bank, after all, is located on what was once the city’s business main street: now no longer the self-respecting thoroughfare of its heyday but “revitalized” as an open-air mall. The atmosphere of a little burg’s traditional amour propre pervades the novel, and, in fact, the floodgates of Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s mania are opened by those stirring expressions of American civic pride: the high-school marching band and the triumphal, neoclassical architecture of banks of yore. Kennedy’s depictions of the bank’s interior and of the marching band are exhilarating and, in the case of the latter, peerlessly so. The pages devoted to the rousing, uniformed splendor of the band as it comes swinging around the corner transmit to our own spirits a giddiness and buoyancy almost equal to that which infects the newly volatile Mrs. Fitzgibbons:

The spectacle overall, with its American flags and high school colors flying, its brilliant purple ranks and gleaming brass, exceeded description—as in the way, for example, that it turned the corner at Essex and Locust, with the inside marchers marking time very smartly, their knees snapping up and down in place, while the entire rank pivoted round them like a swinging dial, and then stepping forth proudly again, raising their horns to their lips. To Mrs. Fitzgibbons, the music and grand moving panoply of it all was nothing short of celestial, as though the Maker was showing His minions.

At the head of this magnificent assemblage is the “resplendent young drum major,” eighteen-year-old Terry Sugrue; it is he, this “vision of martial beauty,” who has unleashed the middle-aged widow’s libido:

His head was up; he had a brass whistle in his mouth; the sun was in his face. Behind him, the row of majorettes had followed suit, their bare knees and white boots flashing up and down in perfect synchronicity with his own steps. The golden tassels of his prodigious baton blew and shimmered in the October air. Mrs. Fitzgibbons had an impulse to run into the street and wrestle him to the pavement. Suddenly the drums fell silent, the boy’s whistle pierced the air, up shot the baton, there was a great clash of cymbals, and twenty trumpets sounded in unison . . .

   “I’d like to change his diapers,” said Mrs. Fitzgibbons.

Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s iron-fisted seduction of this young man is only the first of her conquests. At the bank, energized by madness, the formerly mild-mannered employee finds her unfettered spirit in towering accord with the building’s interior, the “great marble-columned room, . . . a magnificent, high-vaulted emporium, with its venerable dimensions, its twinkling dome, the long row of golden grilles of the tellers’ windows—an almost celestial hall!” She usurps command through sheer willpower: it shimmers from her electrified presence and makes itself heard in vituperative riffs and wild fulminations, a heady verbal excess in which her creator clearly takes as much pleasure as she does. She’s got style. Bold, charismatic, and conquering, she moves up from a pitiful Honda to an enormous Buick commandeered from her hairdresser’s boyfriend, Matthew, who enlists himself as her driver.

With him at the wheel, the fabulous, frightening Mrs. Fitzgibbons travels big, her acolytes following behind in another car of despicable inconsequence: “The sight of the filthy compact following Matthew’s gleaming, highly polished Buick down Dwight Street toward the business district was curious to the eye. It looked as though the Buick had snagged something under its wheels and was towing it to the city dump.” Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s manic transformation into a juggernaut, ghoulishly funny as it is, is not entirely an antic affair; she is, in the first place, a genuine destroyer, gloating over the lives she ruins. Kennedy paints distressing pictures of those victims, their jobs annihilated by a force beyond reason or control. But then there is the case of Mrs. Fitzgibbons herself: she is tragically mentally ill. At times she glimpses this, feeling that she cannot quite control her thinking, at one juncture experiencing “the odd sensation that her brain had actually contracted; that the scope of her thinking was somehow attenuated, like water jetting from a nozzle.” It must all end badly—in a macabre sexual Götterdämmerung. But when it does, and when the sun has finally set on Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s regime, the novel finishes on an unexpected note of pathos that is truly moving.

Ride a Cockhorse is a brilliant, all-American oddity and its author, a one-man band. Somehow in these pages Kennedy has brought together surrealism, satire, and black comedy; affection, empathy, and nostalgia; astute characterization, inspired description, and astonishing linguistic brio. To quote Mrs. Fitzgibbons in a moment of sexual exultation: “This is the goods!”

Katherine A. Powers

Katherine A. Powers‘ column A Reading Life appears twice monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. She reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.