Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book review: Ride a Cockhorse

'You can't judge a book by its cover' is an expression that's true as a metaphor but not as a literal statement of fact. We can't - & shouldn't - judge people by their appearance (although we do, all the time), but we (for 'we', read 'I') judge books by their covers constantly. Case in point: I first encountered Ride a Cockhorse when I noticed its cover & thought, 'oh, that looks lovely' (a frequent thought when I first see NYRB Classics books). I then read the blurb & thought 'I'd love that; I must read it asap' (ditto). I'd never heard of the book, or author Raymond Kennedy, before that, but the striking cover design convinced me to see what it was about, and that was enough to get me to order it.

In part my interest was aroused by the comparison to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the most scathingly hilarious novels of the 20th century. Like that book, Ride a Cockhorse is not constantly guffaw-inducing, but both are nonetheless deeply funny. Set in 1987 in small town New England, Ride a Cockhorse is the story of a few weeks in the life of middle-aged widower Frankie Fitzgibbons. Her husband has been dead for a handful of years, and Frankie has settled into her quiet existence as a loans officer at the local bank. As the book begins, however, she decides she's had enough of playing her passive part in life and becomes a fierce presence everywhere - seducing a student from the high school, dominating her disappointingly earnest daughter more than usual and, most importantly, running roughshed over her workplace, demanding a promotion to CEO, hiring & firing at whim and ruling her quiet little bank like an unpredictable dictator.

She makes enemies, of course, but Frankie also attracts a little band of loyal supporters - her hairdresser, a couple of young women at the bank whom she promotes and takes under wing, her son-in-law, and a couple of others. They fall into her step, doing her bidding, worshipping her and fiercely defending her against the small group at the bank who dare to oppose this mid-level officer who has taken it upon herself to usurp the power structure and declare herself boss. She also attracts media attention - not just for being a female CEO of a local bank, but also because of her immense quotability. The blurb says Ride a Cockhorse is a 'rollicking cautionary tale of small-town demagoguery'. That's true, but in a way the most interesting factor here is the devoted following Frankie builds. Her evolution makes sense in a fairly obvious way - a response to the tedium that her life up until this point had been. But Kennedy also sheds light on the ways in which we love to follow an exciting leader, how we can counteract the boredom of our own lives by getting caught up in the drama caused by someone else - someone else who appeared to be quiet and boring just like us, but who turns out to have hidden depths. Perhaps we hope that within each of us lies a charismatic leader just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself and blow away the cobwebs of our day-to-day living?

The title comes from an old rhyme:
Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

That's a good summary of Frankie's life through these few weeks - rings, bells, music everywhere she grows. But I suspect Kennedy was not at all upset that the title also sounds dirty...

Frankie is an awe-inspiring anti-hero(ine). For most of the novel we're torn - it's exhilarating to see her take some control over her life and get some enjoyment out of it. On the other hand, she's utterly dreadful and runs the bank - & everyone else she encounters - with tactics barely removed from those of military dictatorships. Kennedy - although he tells the story almost entirely from Frankie's perspective - never hides that his main character has become a thoroughly awful person and deserves a massive comeuppance. Does she get one? Well, you'll just have to read and find out for yourself...

As for me, I'm just glad that I continue to judge books by their covers.

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