Ride a Cockhorse

It’s only the very rare work that can officially be deemed a classic a mere twenty-one years after its publication, but such a one is Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse, newly republished in New York Review Books’ marvelous Classics series. I can’t imagine how I missed Ride a Cockhorse the first time around, for it is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever picked up and also quite sui generis: Kennedy’s voice is entirely idiosyncratic, his tale of a reign of terror at an unremarkable Connecticut Valley bank a startling mixture of the ludicrous and the appalling.

It is the autumn of 1987. Throughout the twenty or so years she has worked as a home loan officer at the Parish Bank, the widowed Mrs. Frances “Frankie” Fitzgibbons, soft-spoken and deferential, has attracted little notice from anyone. But now something is changing. “Almost overnight, she had become more strident, even to the point of badgering customers on the telephone and lifting her voice to a level that was considered inconsistent with the usual soft-spoken manner of a courteous banker.”

She experiences a corresponding quickening of her dormant libido, taking an unseemly interest in the resplendent youth who leads the high school marching band past her house every Saturday morning. She leers at him from behind a screen of Dutchman’s pipe on her front porch: “He was marching in place. His head was up; he had a brass whistle in his mouth; the sun was in his face…. 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….’I’d like to change his diapers,’ said Mrs. Fitzgibbons.”  

All impulse control is gone. Soon she is cruising the town at night in her dented Honda, stalking the drum major and eventually — triumphantly — seducing him. Her dress sense sharpens, and she goes in for a sleeker, more glamorous style in clothes and makeup; before long she is the image of the ruthless capitalist, 1980s-style. She assumes a hectoring tone with the hapless “welshers,” as she describes them, who are late with their mortgage payments. “Whom do you think you’re dealing with?  Your local grocer?  We’re your bank!” she roars over the phone to one lady who’s been trying to soft-soap her. “We’re not talking about your snowblower or your refrigerator. We’re talking about your house. If you can’t show me good faith, I’ll turn it over to Maloney and Halpern for foreclosure proceedings.”

Like most people who experience manic episodes, Frankie begins to find “normal” people pathetic. She sees her boss as a “vacant, neutered force to which she had paid loyalty all these years, believing in the meanwhile that her personal welfare and livelihood depended upon it.” Her daughter. Barbara, is a contemptible bleeding heart — “so liberal,” Frankie tells a member of the press, “that she cleans up behind her dog with her bare hands.” These types are fit only to be crushed underfoot, and in a matter of days Frankie is embarked on a rise to power that would impress Hitler. Her nascent paranoia finds no shortages of “enemies” who plan to “assassinate her,” and she cooks up ways to smash many of them brutally. She supplants her boss in a lightning putsch; she fires employees indiscriminately to achieve a cathartic rush; she plans the takeover of competing local banks.   

Like all demagogues, Frankie attracts fanatical devotees. First among these is her hairdresser, Bruce, who displays an obvious need not only to associate himself with such an authoritative figure but literally to worship her. Then there is Bruce’s rough-trade boyfriend, Matthew, who chauffeurs Frankie around in his big, shiny Buick when the Honda is deemed insufficiently grand to accommodate Parish Bank’s rising star. There is Julie Marcotte, the young secretary who “had betrayed on occasion a sycophantic streak that appealed to Mrs. Fitzgibbons” and accordingly becomes her personal assistant and Cerberus; and there are the thugs who inevitably gravitate to rabble-rousers, such as the hitherto benign security guard, Mr. Donachie, who “clearly welcomed her treating him with a steady affection that was both imperious and reassuring” and now takes to wearing militaristic black (with an American flag pin on his lapel) whenever he escorts Frankie anywhere.

It all makes for a brilliantly sinister comedy that carries considerable thematic heft. The setting of the novel in 1987 is no mistake; Black Monday occurs in the early days of Frankie’s ascendency, shaking up the bank and facilitating her rise, and there are sparing but pointed references to the relaxation of federal controls on banks that had taken place during the previous few years and the resultant gambling and chance-taking bankers indulged in with deposits. To see Frankie Fitzgibbons as a satirical take on the out-of-control capitalism enabled by the Reagan financial reforms is easy enough; the fact that the situation has only become more pronounced in the two decades since Kennedy was writing makes the parallels all the more marked.

But Frankie’s rise to power has still broader implications. Does clinical mania effectively engender sociopathy, releasing the patient from moral scruples and constraints in the same way that the relaxation of banking regulations has released predatory capitalists? At one point, early in her ascent, Frankie feels herself “trembling inside, as though the soul within her were shaking its cage to be let out.” Do we all of us carry, somewhere inside, a power-hungry sociopath screaming to be set free?  And what about the ease — no, the joy — with which certain people attach themselves to demagogues and follow them into the breach? Frankie is not an allegorical stand-in for Hitler, but her rise directly follows the classic dictator pattern.

But Kennedy is too antic a writer to press home any of these obvious implications with excessive force. His Frankie remains — mercifully — a small-time and ultimately fangless fascist, her homely surroundings emphasizing the absurdity of her grandiose quest. Kennedy is a master not only of the language of his native Connecticut Valley (Frankie’s way with the local lingo is instrumental in her success, as has been the case with Sarah Palin) but with its imagery as well. He makes effective sport of Frankie’s hometown with its “revitalized” downtown mall and run-down country clubs. Cars — as everywhere in America and no doubt the wider world as well — are always richly indicative of status and aspirations. Barbara and her husband’s mud-spattered compact says as much about them as Frankie’s adoption of the Buick does about her, at that moment: “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.”   

Like all really good comic novelists Kennedy loves his monsters. Many readers will develop not only a fascination with Frankie but a sneaking liking for her as well, so that when her rampage comes to its inevitable end there is something almost touching in her deflation. There is even a soupçon of theology, if we care to pick up on it. Kennedy, though broadly comic in his style, could be a subtle moralist.