“Ride a Cockhorse” by Raymond Kennedy (1991) – 307 pages
An alternative name for this novel re-issued by New York Review Books Classics could be “Frankie Takes Charge”. First Mrs. Frankie Fitzgibbons takes charge of her sex life by seducing the teenage boy who is the drum major of the local high school band, and then she takes charge at work with spectacular results. She destroys her male boss and moves into his office. She emphatically increases the business of her bank and becomes a local media star. There is no stopping Frankie as she fires long-time employees and makes plans to wreck the other local bank rivals. “Cockhorse” is a black comedy in which we watch Frankie with glee and with horror at the same time. She is an unstoppable, despotic force.
“If Mrs. Fitzgibbons knew nothing else, she knew that she could crush the man like a bug.”
There is one blurb on the back of “Cockhorse” that caused me to select this book over the many other NYRB Classics available. The blurb attributed to Newsweek said “Perhaps the funniest American novel since John Kennedy Toole’s prize winner ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’”. Since I’m a great fan of ‘Dunces’, this was a sure-fire line to get me to read this book.
No, “Cockhorse” is not quite in Dunce’s league, but how many humorous novels are? It was eerily fascinating to watch Frankie take over her office and become more cold-blooded and downright mean than nearly any male boss would have been. One of the other blurbs on the back of the novel points out the similarity between the rise of Frankie and the rise of Sarah Palin, an apt comparison.
“I’m not suggesting a reign of terror,” Mrs. Fitzgibbons tossed out lightly, although, in truth. she would have liked nothing better than striking dread in the hearts of everyone in the place, “just some selective dismissals.”
The story starts out immediately after Frankie’s transformation, and we are given no reasons for the change in Frankie’s character which causes her to seduce the drum major and then take over at her bank office. We readers learn she is a widow, but we do not learn the motivation for this behavior change in Frankie. Instead the story barrels ahead which is probably a good thing, but I would have preferred a little back story, an explanation as to the causes for this dramatic change to her personality. Up to this point, apparently Frankie was a mild good-natured woman.
“Cockhorse” has a strong forward momentum that kept me reading rapidly through the novel. Raymond Kennedy captures the atmosphere of a local bank office and the terror that an out-of-control bank manager can cause. Also even though there is little direct mention of Massachusetts, the reader gets a strong sense of the story occurring in New England. This novel is a good example of Americana at its near best.