Ride a Cockhorse
by Raymond Kenney (1991)
NYRB Classics (2012)
307 pp

Some of you may know that I recently moved across country (that’s the cause of the relative lack of posts this June). The primary reason for the move was to get closer to family, but a large part of our motive was to get away from a job in New York City that threatened to suck me under. Ride a Cockhorse, one of those rare books of fiction that speaks coherently and knowledgeably about banks, the financial markets, and some of the people who thrive in those fields, only assured me that my decision to move was correct for me. Remarkably, it did that while making me laugh out loud.

The book begins in the fall of 1987 in small-town New England. Outside, the highschool marching band treks around, and everyone seems to be slipping into another comfortable autumn. This is not the case for Frankie Fitzgibbons, who up to now has been “ordinarily very reasonable and sweet-tempered,” and, falling “like an early winter storm,” she’s about to do her part to ensure fall 1987 is not normal for many others. “Almost overnight” Frankie changes; here are the novel’s fantastic opening lines:

Looking back, Mrs. Fitzgibbons could not recall which of the major changes in her life had come about first, the discovery that she possessed a gift for persuasive speech, or the sudden quickening of her libido. While the latter development was the more memorable of the two, involving as it did the seduction of young Terry Sugrue, the high school drum major, it was Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s newfound ability to work her will upon others through her skills with language which produced the more exciting effects.

The first highly disturbing chapter (disturbing in a way that makes you chuckle covertly) details the seduction — and I’d say destruction — of the young Terry Sugrue. A heretofore kind-speaking boy is, by the end of the chapter, not long after meeting Mrs. Fitzgibbons, saying filthy, terrible things about his kind girlfriend. Terry is only the first to fall prey to Frankie’s personality shift.

For the past twenty years, Frankie has been a mild-mannered home loan officer at a relatively small and conservative bank. People were kind to her and she was kind to them; it is doubtful even days before that she would have expected her sudden change, though now her perspective is such that “[s]he had played the part that life assigned her, of caring wife and mother, and of responsible employee, an unwitting champion of the very things that had obscured her light.” With her new powers, almost immediately she manages to replace and demote her own boss. It takes little more time to elevate herself to CEO of the bank, firing people here and there as her whim called. But she loves it:

One evening, before going out, she caught an unexpected glimpse of herself in the hall mirror and was delighted to discover a stranger looking back at her.

Others love it, too. Not only does she raise the amount of deposits by 5% the day after a mendacious feature article appears, but she manages to continue the streak through Black Monday, when Wall Street and many other regional banks are in a panic. How does she do it? Well, she says, “you have to find a way to be both cautious and daring”; in other words, much like many other financial institutions have grown, at least for a period. She knows the right phrases and has the “appropriate” mindset: “If I hadn’t had murder in my heart all day, I’d be in ruins now.” But obviously she’s building what could be called the “Mrs. Fitzgibbons Bubble,” for what substance can she possibly add? As her frightened competitors say, “The woman’s a rabble-rouser. She works on people’s fears. She plays to the balcony.” It’s fitting that she is “unleashed” during one of the worst financial crises the United States has suffered.

She has her detractors and her devoted, witless acolytes. Though biting to the point of absurdity, Kennedy manages to show us that this absurdity is a reality we face even today.

Ride a Cockhorse is always fun and always insightful, rightfully a classic. My only complaint, if it can be called that, is that the book can seem a bit repetitive: how many ways can Frankie confront an obstacle, even if the obstacles are getting bigger and her nerve more outrageous? That said, the management in the financial world is filled with this on a day-to-day basis, so the repetition is spot on.

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