Frankie Fitzgibbons, the Coen Brothers, and the Free Market

Some of them want to use you

Some them want to get used by you

Some of them want to abuse you

Some of them want to be abused

The Eurythmics’ synth-pop anthem seemed to speak for something about the 1980s—a cold, cool attitude that if you wanted it, you could find it on the free market (no matter how self-destructive it was).  Yet Annie Lennox’s lyrics also evoked a classical kind of of sexual supply and demand.  The whole system would approach equilibrium between those who wanted to abuse and those who wanted to be abused, and ultimately the market would align everyone’s interests, resulting in a kind of kinky harmony—the greatest good for the greatest number.

gordon gekko annie lennox and american psycho

Other pop cultural works point to a different aspect of the freewheeling 1980s, and it’s not just the straightforward “Greed is good” critique of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) or the implicit consumerism-as-psychosis allegory of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991).  The novel Ride a Cockhorse (1991) and the film No Country for Old Men (2007) also have volumes to say about an era that celebrated the free market, individual self interest, and cavalier disregard for musty regulations and tradition as the essence of the American dream.  Both reveal a kind of frightening, all-consuming logic of predation that belies homilies about “enlightened self interest” or an “invisible hand” guiding market interactions toward a happy conclusion—the invisible hand turns out to be a capricious and malevolent force in both stories of the pursuit of profit in the 1980s.

No Country for Old Men, of course, was adapted from the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy.  The Coen brothers created a dusty, dark tale of despair in the American-Mexican borderlands, as a hardworking redneck discovers the remnants of a drug deal gone wrong in the desert and makes off with a suitcase full of money.  He knows he has done wrong, in some sense, but he had clearly taken the money from scoundrels—was it wrong to steal from thieves?  Especially dead thieves, or the murderous clique who killed them off?  In the universe of rational self interest, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) convinces himself that this is his ticket out—like winning the lottery, or making an unexpected windfall in the stock market—and decides that he should get while the getting is good, all the while understanding on a certain level that severe consequences were a real and imminent possibility and that someone or something would be after him.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be something.  Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh, the hitman with the moppish haircut and menacing, lifeless face, was enough to earn him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2008.  This inscrutable man from nowhere was more a force of nature than a human being.  As he cut his relentless swath through the American Southwest in pursuit of his employers’ stolen money, he relied entirely on chance.  A flip of the coin was the ultimate arbiter of whether someone would live or die, and Chigurh lived by this code with an unthinking, almost mechanical faith.  He owed everything to the free play of chance, just like investors betting money in an increasingly abstract and casino-like capitalism of the deregulated 1980s.  All the while, men who adhered to a traditional way of thinking could not comprehend this vicious, unrelenting, methodical force that was coming for them—from the somewhat noble Llewelyn Moss, who steals the money but still comes back to help an injured victim at the scene of the original drug deal out a sense of pained conscience (a decision that ultimately compromises his escape and seals his fate)—to the old-time sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, who simply cannot recognize or comprehend the dark trend in American life, preferring to think of a past where things made more sense:

I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can’t help but wonder how they would’ve operated these times. There was this boy I sent to the electric chair in Huntsville here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a 14-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion, but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell, be there in about 15 minutes. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.

It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out there and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say “Okay, I’ll be a part of this world”.

In a film set in 1980, Sheriff Tom Bell sensed that something dark and overpowering was coming—something that did not make sense within the old moral framework.  Whether it was the torrent of avarice unleashed by the policies of Ronald Reagan or the nearly incomprehensible violence made possible by the astronomical prizes to be won in the drug war, an ill wind was set to sweep across America in this time, and Anton Chigurh was the perfect avatar for a blind, unstoppable pursuit of self-interest that epitomized the atomistic egoism of the era; a reliance on the free play of chance in the market; and the brutally violent trends of addiction, violence, and criminality that menaced American life in the 1980s and 1990s.

Raymond Kennedy’s 1991 novel Ride a Cockhorse was written years earlier than Cormac McCarthy’s bleak epic, and it offers a much more comical (if also dark) take on the changes shaping American life during this period.  Ride a Cockhorse concerns, and is consumed by, the unique figure of Frankie Fitzgibbons, a low-ranking loan officer in a modest New England bank who somehow wakens from the torpor of her middle-class complacency to become a corporate striver of monstrous and grandiose aggressiveness.  One day, something snaps in “Mrs. Fitzgibbons,” as she is known throughout the novel.  She is speaking on the phone one day to another mortgage-holder with another sob story about late payments and lost jobs, and she suddently snaps.  “If you’re looking for a sympathetic ear,” she declares, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”  The pitiful mortgager, whose husband was “a plumber or an electrician,” was no longer to be an object of Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s patience.

I don’t care whether you’re three months late with your payment, or thirty-three! … I’ll tell you why.  Because you and Jed are going to have to convince me that you can get your act together.  We’re not talking about your snowblower or your refrigerator.  We’re talking about your house.  If you can’t show me good faith, I’ll turn it over to Maloney and Halpern for foreclosure proceedings.  You’ll come in here at ten A.M., on the tenth of the month, and ask for me, Mrs. Fitzgibbons.  Both of you.

From this satori-like moment of transformation grows a hilarious and mortifying story of one woman turning a local community (in this case, the bank, and the larger city of Ireland Parish) upside down.  Mrs. Fitzgibbons is a sort of fascist Norma Rae.  From unexpected circumstances—a reserved, kindly, mousy middle-aged widow with a low-ranking job in the bank—Frankie manages to steamroll everyone in her path as she grasps for ever greater authority, improbably managing to install herself as chief executive of the bank by a skillfull exploitation of public relations.  With each new bit of power Mrs. Fitzgibbons assumes, the people around her become more enthralled and/or fearful.  She dresses in a more glamorous and seductive manner; she randomly fires people to instill a sense of terror (and loyalty) among her subordinates; she seduces and essentially rapes a high school drum major; and she cultivates an inner circle of sycophants who rapidly descend into New England-style brown shirts, either by vanity (a few narrowly drawn gay male characters) or fear of punishment (the slavish female underlings and sallow, sickly male employees who quickly buckle under Frankie’s dictatorial style).

Mrs. Fitzgibbons’s story is in some ways simply a phantasmagoria of small town fascism, of how one charismatic and possibly mentally ill personality can work those around her into a froth of unthinking, fearful adoration—something on the order of what Kurt Vonnegut called “psychopathic personalities,” in reference to the follies of Enron, Worldcom, and the Iraq War:

What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

As Mrs. Fitzgibbons amasses power, she finds herself haunted by a ceaseless anxiety that can only be quenched by the kind of arbitrary, impulsive action Vonnegut describes.  She fires people to calm her nerves, finding sudden satisfaction in dressing down another poor victim.  She assigns employees the task of assembling dossiers on her enemies, including the poor tellers whose jobs she terminated, and takes a habit of threatening violent retribution and prosecution against anyone who dares not follow her orders, with “I’ll have you put away” becoming a frequent utterance within a matter of days.  “Because if you don’t do that for me,” she tells one unfortunate worker, “you’ll be a store 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.”  Elsewhere, when she coerces an employee to pimp out his wife (whose freelance career as a sex worker has become known to Frankie) to blackmail a competitor, she threatens, “If she doesn’t, you’ll be working my rock-salt detail this winter.  You’ll be shoveling my driveway.  I’ll have you picked up.  I’ll have you booked.  You’ll go away, Howard.”

There is even a touch of working class populism in Fitzgibbons’s reign of terror, as she peremptorily slashes the bonuses of the middle management figures she seeks to destroy in her pursuit of power while retaining the loyalty of the lower orders who are cheered by her dramatic personal leadership:

She noticed as she spoke that most of the bank’s loan officers and middle management had unconsciously gravitated toward one another on the left side of the assembly, and that she instinctively was directing herself to the larger body of workers standing in the middle and on the right, the tellers, clerks, maintenance men, secretaries, and such.

Yet there is something far bigger going in the career of Frankie Fitzgibbons, which has been described by some as a spot-on premonition of the sudden rise of another local-yokel-turned-political-opportunist, Sarah Palin.  The novel’s author, Raymond Kennedy, implies throughout that Mrs. Fitzgibbons is experiencing a kind of psychotic break or at least a manic episode by emphasizing the physical dimensions of her experience—a tightening of the chest in response to a setback or riposte, or “the odd sensation that her brain had actually contracted, that the scope of her thinking was somehow attenuated” in a moment of indecision or inactivity. There is the sense that her condition was medical, yet individual pathology does not resolve the fact that her character intersects with numerous trends of the period: her nonstop babble about dynamism, innovation, leadership, and cutthroat competition paralleled a financial system that was breaking out of the confines of small, locally-bounded banks and taking advantage of deregulation to wipe out all opposition and consolidate into the handful of megabanks we know today.

Indeed, Mrs. Fitzgibbons may be a manic depressive or bipolar figure, but her fictive portrayal can tell us a great deal about a culture where an unrelenting, even destructive force—like Frankie or Anton Chigurh—can work the system and operate to its ultimate advantage.  She was a woman for her time, the perfect puzzle piece to the complete the picture of an era that annihilated the small and traditional in favor of the large, aggressive, and profit-seeking—a case study that is, in its own way, more telling than the amoral Gordon Gekko of cinema fame.  The Bank of Americas and Wells-Fargos of the world grew large by eating the Nationsbanks, Wachovias, and First Unions, who had previously gobbled up small local banks in the course of deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s.  Local players like Frankie Fitzgibbons played their role in making this big, grand, new world possible, even if they ultimately played bit parts in their own grandiose stories.  Frankie may have tapped into the zeitgeist, but she was not the ultimate victor—despite the dictatorial fantasies she nourished about her own epic destiny.

We swim in the same ocean.  We dine on the same diet.  We endure the same storms.  No one is free from runs of bad luck.  I am no different from you in that way.

In the end, efficiency makes the difference.  That’s always true, and you know it.  Efficiency alone will win us back our share of the market.

That a deranged woman suffering a psychotic break is the prophet of the gospel of the free market says a lot.  One of the greatest delights of Raymond Kennedy’s book is the sparkling, sing-song, bombastic rhythm of Mrs. Fitzgibbon’s speech: a torrent of short, clipped, declarative sentences with hard verbs and lurid comparisons and an entirely unwarranted certitude about cause and effect.  “Preservationists!” she scoffs.  “When the bulldozers come, they change their tune.”

These fairweather dandies!  With their little spectacles and clipboards and fake Gucci loafers.  Why, it’s enough to constipate a cat.  They’d have to take me out of here on a slab before I’d back down.

If I hadn’t had murder in my heart all day, I’d be in ruins now.  I’d be at the mercy of tyrannical little underlings like Elizabeth Wilson, who makes her girls show her their fingernails.  Disgusting creatures who want to get you under their heel.  I’d be a basket case.  I’d be dead… I wouldn’t be on television, I wouldn’t be the new chief, I wouldn’t be a thing.  My future wouldn’t be worth a penny.

Fitzgibbons becomes the bard of the free market, a kind of ersatz, Schumpeterian-cum-Nietzschean Walt Whitman.

The market means many things to many people, but it is known to reward those who risk, who compete, who are willing to take a chance.  The age of Anton Chigurh and Frankie Fitzgibbons celebrated these individuals as entrepreneurs who would buck a sleepy old order.  A great deal ultimately comes down to chance—something that an adrenaline and dopamine-mad Frankie was willing to embrace, and that the inhuman Chigurh accepted completely.  In one classic scene from No Country, the hitman forces a small time shopowner into a frightening choice.  “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” Chigurh asks.  The man behind the counter is perplexed.  “I don’t know. I couldn’t say,” he says.  When Chigurh insists that he call the toss, the owner says, “Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here… I didn’t put nothing up.”  As Chigurh says, “Yes, you did.  You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it.  You know what date is on this coin?  1958.  It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here.  And now it’s here.  And it’s either heads or tails.  And you have to say it.  Call it.  You stand to win everything. Call it.”