Full disclosure: I gave up on this novel halfway through; with that said, I’m still marking it as read—I feel as if I have read it as, at the point at which I threw in the towel, the monotony and repetitive dialogue and almost predictable rise-in-the-chain-of-command ascendancy of Frankie Fitzgibbons made me feel as if I had the end of the novel pretty well nailed. (Of course, I now wonder how the novel does end: perhaps it ends as some huge cult scene of slaughter, sacrifice, and mass suicide. Although that wouldn’t surprise me all that much either, so I’m happy living with the uncertainty.
Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse has polarized a lot of reviewers here on Goodreads, and for good reason. I think that a lot of us expect a certain quality of books from NYRB, and this certainly doesn’t feel like a NYRB title at all. Another point of contention has to do with the marketing blurb on the back of the book itself, something that George Ilsley points out in his review below. From the blurb:
Brimming with snappy dialogue and gleeful obscenity, Ride a Cockhorse is a rollicking cautionary tale of small-town demagoguery that might be seen to prefigure both America’s current financial woes and the rise of Sarah Palin.While I’m hardly a fan of Sarah Palin, I’m not sure that a publisher should be espousing political agendas on the back covers of their books. On top of that, I prefer to make my own connections while reading instead of having the marketing department at NYRB decide it for me, thank you very much.
The first chapter of Ride a Cockhorse is wonderful: it’s witty; it’s perverse; it’s hilarious; it’s sickening; it’s like watching a train wreck and being somehow immobilized, unable to look away. After this, Kennedy’s pace slows down as we witness the previously docile and demure Frankie Fitzgibbons come into a strange midlife crisis that, for her, involves the blessing (or curse) of a growing ego, libido, and deluded inflation of her view of herself in relation to others. Her constant denigrations and whip-quick put-downs of those in her power are funny, but they grow old quickly—all the more so as they are repeated almost verbatim on every other page. (On this note, some words get repeated too frequently as well: e.g., “paranoid” and “liquid” being two words that caused me to cringe each time I saw them peppered throughout the text.)
Moria has made a good point about the novel’s sexist message: it does indeed read like a male author’s own paranoia—deflected and refracted through the main female character here in the novel—about women rising to positions of power. I also found the sycophantic Bruce and his partner to be characterized in comical ways that could also be read as bordering too closely on homophobia. Ride a Cockhorse is, if anything, a portrait of two-dimensional characters drawn along lines of stereotypes and cliches, so perhaps this was Kennedy’s intention; if it was, the message was not delivered properly to many readers, simply reading comments below.
Nathan N.R. Gaddis brought “camp” up earlier, and as I was making my way through Ride a Cockhorse, I realized that the true way to appreciate the humor and the satire at work in Kennedy’s novel was to read it as camp. It’s the only way, and actually, you know something, Kennedy does camp really well. But there also comes a point when camp is overdone, and, in the case of Ride a Cockhorse, 300 pages filled with phrases, characterizations, put-downs, you-name-it that are repeated ad nauseam is far too long to sustain camp, if you ask me. (Of course, I could also be biased in suggesting Kennedy might well have turned this novel into a solid short story or novella: it seems the last few novels I reviewed—Gerard Murnane’s Inland and Barry Webster’s The Lava in My Bones—were also, in my view, pieces that would have functioned better as short fiction.)
NYRB publishes some truly wonderful books, translations, brings long out-of-print titles back into circulation, etcetera. Perhaps Kennedy’s should have been shelved in favor of bringing more typical NYRB titles into our always-greedy hands (ahem, like MacDonald Harris’s Mortal Leap). Ride a Cockhorse, including its Sarah Palin marketing blurb, should be viewed as an experiment on NYRB’s part, one that failed pretty miserably—although it was fun as far as chapter one goes, I’ll give them/him/it that much.