I bought Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy on the strength of my faith in the consistent quality of the books published by New York Review Book Classics. Its description promised a great deal, and for its delightfully unique story and the fact it made me laugh out loud, repeatedly, it’s going to make my best of 2012 list.
The book’s setting is a small, quiet New England town, and most of the action centres on the Parish bank. Frances Fitzgibbons, a 45-year-old widow, has been employed at the bank for some years as a “home loan officer,” and she’s both well-respected and well-liked. She’s also a fairly anonymous person, until one day, the inner totalitarian breaks through, and Frankie’s life begins to change drastically.
She was ordinarily very reasonable and sweet-tempered, the soul of polite discretion. 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 could also be quite tart and provocative with those working around her, as on the afternoon when she lectured Connie McElligot, the woman at the front desk, for fifteen minutes on the subject of how the escalating interest rates of the 1980s portended an economic crisis of global proportions.
Just as Frankie’s behaviour at the bank shifts into aggressive overdrive, her appetite for sex changes too, and a lustful interest in the high school drum major (she has “an impulse to run into the street and wrestle him to the pavement,“) develops into a nightly prowl for her virginal victim. Think Blanche Dubois meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and you just about have the right image of how Frankie seduces the drum major–an awkward teen, whose girlfriend, Frankie insists, wants to “breed up.”
“If you’re looking for a sympathetic ear,” Mrs. Fitzgibbons had disabused the woman at once, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Remarkable as it might seem, with that one line, Mrs. Fitzgibbons put behind her years of futile soft-soaping diplomacy. She was sitting at her desk in the home loan department, with Connie McElligot bent over the desk in front of her, and Felix Hohenberger at the desk behind. As Mrs. Fitzgibbons gave the woman a piece of her mind, she swiveled sidelong in her chair and looked up importantly at the pale, splintered sunlight trembling in the pretty windows of the ceiling dome thirty-five feet above herself. She was frowning with her lips set in an unhappy expression as the woman on the line sought to explain in detail the reasons underlying her tardiness of payment.
Mrs. Fitzgibbons explodes and everyone in the bank stops in their tracks. This incident marks a new bizarre trend of behaviour in the formerly pleasant woman. With her new aggressive outlook, not only does Frankie get herself promoted but she begins an intense self-advertising campaign which includes news releases, interviews and a daily glamorous make-over by Bruce, an adoring gay hair-dresser who’s completely in her thrall. Frankie’s new-found confidence and authoritarian approach to banking and employee management increases consumer confidence, and in the shockwave of Frankie’s new Cult of Personality, the bank begins to thrive against its competitors. Frankie’s power grows. Soon any bank employee who crosses Frankie is shown the door with dramatic ceremony, and she surrounds herself with a gang of sycophants and outcasts who are willing to do whatever she demands.
As the newly promoted CEO, full of meaningless bank speak, Frankie keeps everyone in the bank on their toes by sporadic dismissals which are organized by whimsy and the spin of an index wheel. Since the dismissals are without cause and are rooted in pure impulse, these actions result in the bank employees living in imminent terror of dismissal. Here’s Frankie ranting to Jack, a bank employee when she senses that she has enemies in the ranks. She wants information about employees she just fired:
“I want to know who they lunched with while they were here, who their closest friends were, their neighbours, their doctors, their children, their wives’ maiden names, their parents, everything in the book.”
“But we don’t have information like that,” he countered helplessly.
“Because if you don’t do that for me,” she went on, “you’ll be a stock clerk at K mart. You’ll be working for the sanitation department. You’ll be peddling your body down at Race and Main to little Puerto Rican men with mustaches. I’ll fire you, Jack.” Mrs. Fitzgibbons looked genuinely scary, very even-eyed and soft-voiced, as she enunciated her threat. “You were their superior. Your neck is on the line.”
Frankie’s behaviour becomes more outrageous (and it’s a brilliant move by the author to set these scenes of excess against the backdrop of a normally staid and bloodless institution), and I found myself cheering her naughtiness on. Was I no better than one of her toadies who would love to be just like Frankie if they had the nerve? I wasn’t bowing and scraping, but this character was giving me a wonderful time. For just over 300 pages, I too lived vicariously through Frankie as she told people how pathetic they were right before telling them to take a hike. Here she is confronting her boss, Mr Louis Zabac about the many employee firings:
“You have a tender heart, Louis. I can tolerate that. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You prefer looking the other way. Et cetera, et cetera,” she said, with a dismissing wave. “I was happy to do it. I threw them out. It was a tonic. Everyone feels better. The air is cleared. The deadbeats are gone. People who couldn’t even tie their own shoelaces”–Mr. Zabac winced painfully at Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s reference to the one-armed Mr. Kane–”are scarcely qualified to cut the mustard in this new order.”
“Mrs. Fitzgibbons,” the chairman pleaded to be heard, “why are you so irritable today?”
“You don’t run mongrels in a dog race,” she added. “You use greyhounds.”
“Discrimination is illegal.”
“Please! Louis! We’re both grown-ups. I fired a bunch of mutts.” She laughed out loud as she recalled the air of innocence of Marshall Moriarty when she axed him. “I did it cleanly. The people I disposed of were either simpleminded, aging, or so inconsequential that if they dropped dead at the supper table their own families wouldn’t notice.”
As the novel continues, and Mrs. Fitzgibbon’s outrageously bad behaviour is unchecked, the novel becomes a satire on totalitarianism. If you’ve ever wondered how someone like Stalin, for example, carried on for years, then just read the book. Frankie divides people with fear and her unpredictable behaviour. Some bank employees are “cronies” who adore her (especially the mousey, the losers or the outcasts) and live vicariously through her unleashed, frequently sexually directed comments and aggressive behaviour, and are thrilled by their new-found ability to take action in Frankie’s name, while some deluded, unfortunate souls imagine that they can take her on and battle her bullying ways. Even Frankie’s son-in-law, Eddie, to his wife’s horror, defects to Frankie’s camp and becomes one of her most ardent, and enamoured fans. It’s no coincidence that Frankie’s clothing becomes more militaristic or that she has her own mini hit squad of wanna-be brown shirts. Author Raymond Kennedy shows that bad behaviour which knows no limits can carry a bully a long way, and that’s just what happens with Frankie.
Trevor at Mookse and Gripes also reviewed the novel and pointed out that it can be repetitive at times. Can’t argue with that but I can forgive this for the hours of enjoyment gained. It’s the perfect companion to another New York Review Classics book Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home. Both Rachel, from Wish Her Safe at Home and Frankie are a similar age, they both reconstruct their worlds, and they both think that men are after their bods, and in all fairness to Frankie, it’s often true.