Cockfighter

ISBN: 1596542225
ISBN 13: 9781596542228
By: Charles Willeford

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Reader's Thoughts

Brian

my favorite film of all time was based on this book...i dare say the book was even better...i would tell people to watch the film first b/c nothing beats picturing warren oates as frank mansfield...

Chris

Very well written. You don't need to like or know anything about cockfighting to appreciate this novel. The protagonist is, like a true artist, immersed in his medium and will suffer to produce the work of his ambitions. The prose is terse, and the characters are vivid.

Mary Overton

"As far back as 320 B.C. an old poet named Chanakya wrote that a man can learn four things from a cock: To fight, to get up early, to eat with his family, and to protect his spouse when she gets into trouble. I had learned how to fight and how to get up early, but I had never gotten along too well with my family and I didn't have any spouse to protect. Fighting was all very well, but getting up early was not the most desirable habit to have when living in a big city like Jacksonville [FL]." pg. 416"Unlike most American sportsmen, the cockfighting fan has an overwhelming tendency to become an active participant. There is no such thing as a passive interest in cockfighting. Beginning as a casual onlooker, a man soon finds the action of two game cocks battling to the death a fascinating spectacle. He either likes it or he doesn't. If he doesn't like it, he doesn't return to watch another fight. If he does like it, he accepts, sooner or later, everything about the sport - the good with the bad."As the fan gradually learns to tell one game strain from another, he admires the vain beauty of a game rooster. Admiration leads to the desire to possess one of these beautiful creatures for his very own, and pride of ownership leads to the pitting of his pet against another game cock. Whether he wins or loses, once the fan has got as far as pitting, he is as hooked as a ghetto mainliner." pg.493"Members of the cockfighting fraternity are from all walks of life. There are men like myself, from good Southern families, sharecroppers, businessmen, loafers on the county relief rolls, Jews, and Holy Rollers. If there is one single thing in the world, more than all the others, preserving the tradition of the sport of cocking for thousands of years, it's the spirit of democracy. In a letter to General Lafayette, George Washington wrote, 'It will be worth coming back to the United States, if only to be present at an election and a cocking main at which is displayed a spirit of anarchy and confusion, which no countryman of yours can understand.' I carried a clipping of this letter, which had been reprinted in a game fowl magazine, in my wallet. I had told Mary Elizabeth [my fiance] once that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had both been cockfighters during the colonial period, but she had been unimpressed. Nonetheless, cockfighters are still the most democratic group of men in the United States." pg.497

Rusty

This is just excellent.I'm surprised no one's mentioned Michael Vick in this whole Cockfighter and Brett Favre discussion, though.

Nigel Bird

Books like Cockfighter remind me of how I came to love literature in the first place. It offers a wonderful sense of being transported to an entirely different place, seeing the world through the eyes of others and then ensuring that I’m so captivated by a series of events that all I want to do in life at a given moment (well, most given moments) is return to the next page.The quote at the beginning of the book is from Ezra Pound – “What matters is not the idea a man holds, but the depth at which he holds it.” There’s plenty of depth in evidence here as protagonist Frank takes the reader into the life of a serious cockfighter.Frank is such a passionate man that he’s vowed, unbeknownst to anyone else, to remain silent until he gains the coveted mark of respect that is the silver medal that marks someone out as the cock handler of the year (sniggers really don’t fit on this occasion!). He explains himself a little here:‘No one, other than myself, knew about my vow, and I could have broken it at any time without losing face. But I would know, and I had to shave every day.”That last phrase is the kind of poetic turn that give the story an extra edge – Willeford allows his character to tell his tale without relying on the mundane.When we meet Frank, he’s on the cusp of losing everything – his money, his last fighting bird, his car and his trailer home – on one fight with an old adversary. It’s a hugely dramatic opening and, at risk of spoiling that drama (look away now) it ends up with Frank leaving the pit with only $10, a coop, a few clothes and a guitar.Given a lift by an old friend who has been forced to retire, he’s offered the chance to buy the perfect bird, Icarus, for the hugely inflated sum of $500. Frank has a choice – to promise to buy the bird or to give up the game and return home to marry his patient, conservative fiancée. Frank’s passion means there’s only one option and he sets off to find the money he needs.What follows is the engrossing sequence of events that will lead up to Frank having the chance to make his personal dream come true.Cockfighter reads like a novel from the depression era, but is set in the 1960s. In some ways, it points to the hangover of values that are old-fashioned in ways that might be seen as good and bad. Frank has his own mixture of values, and his own liberal(ish) views are often contradicted by his animal self or by society. Race and gender are particular areas of interest here.He holds strong opinions on the nature of work and the illusions created by a capitalist society. When looking for a job, he comments:‘The majority of the situations that were open in the agate columns were for salesmen. And a man who can’t talk can’t sell anything.’Or on bigger dreams:‘I liked the man for what he was and respected him for what he was trying to be. But unlike me, Doc lived with a dream that was practically unattainable. All I wanted to be was the best cockfighter who had ever lived. Doc, who had already reached his late fifties, wanted to be a big time capitalist and financier.’The series of adventures in the book are brilliantly told. There’s a wonderful use of dramatic tension which left me hungry to find out what would happen next. When the final full stop was reached, my appetite was entirely satisfied. Here’s a book the likes of which I wish I could write myself. Given the talent on show and my own limitations that’s very unlikely, but just like Frank I don’t see the harm in setting such a high goal. Maybe I should take a vow of silence; if nothing else I suspect my wife and colleagues would be happier that way.Tremendous.

Christian

I was drawn to this book by Monte Hellman's cult film adaptation starring Warren Oates. Cockfighter is an excellent character study of Frank Mansfield, who has taken a vow of silence until he wins Cockfighter of the Year. The dominant theme of the novel is obsession. Frank thinks about little besides building up a stable of gamecocks, and all of the other cockers in the novel share his all-encompassing addiction to the sport. Willeford knows cockfighting well, and the book is rich with detail of how gamecocks are bred, conditioned, and fought.

Bro_Pair أعرف

I started reading "Maldoror," originally, by the Comte de Lautreaumont, and threw it aside because fifty pages in, I'm pretty sure it's schlock crap. I should've known, picking up a book that an awful, awful, AWFUL write like William Vollmann considers his favorite. But it had a good blurb on the back from some great French writer whose name I don't remember, saying "this book excites me."Well, that book really didn't excite me. But this one sure did. I can't describe this book very well, except to say it had the same effect on me reading "The Gambler" by Dostoevsky did - that is to say, up late at night, racing to the end, desperate to see what happens next. Frank Mansfield will not say another word until he is the greatest cockfighter in the South, and is recognized as such, and he will sacrifice everything to make it happen. What a great, engrossing book. Also, you'll learn a lot about cockfighting.

Cal

Couldn't finish it. I thought this book was about a cockfighter. Not a guy playing guitar in a night club for 50 pages.

Patrick McCoy

The Cockfighter, obviously, is about a man who trains chickens for fights that often end in death of one or both animals, thus, it is not for everyone. It is a subculture I knew very little about, but thanks to this novel, I now know a lot about after following the exploits of the protagonist Frank Mansfield. In fact, it could be said to be the "Moby Dick" of cockfighting novels in that there are several sections that discuss the intricacies of the cockfighting trade as well as the conditioning of the birds. It was one of the elements that I found engaging in Miami Blues as well-I was able to immerse myself in the southern culture of Miami and Miami Beach-places that I had never set foot in myself. The same can be said of this novel. I was able to inhabit the southern cockfighting tour and share the triumphs and setbacks of the eccentric protagonist Frank Mansfield whose one and only goal in life is to be the cockfighter of the year. This is a similarity between Hoke Mosely (from Miami Blues) and Frank Mansfield they are driven to succeed and be the best they can in their respective professions almost to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives. Willeford is a master of creating believable and unusual characters in his novels and I look forward to inhabiting his world of fiction in future novels as well.

Chris

My familiarity with Charles Willeford was limited to his most famous book, Miami Blues, and two of its sequels (still haven’t read the third), which follow the down and out detective, Hoke Mosely. Mosely is a flawed, at times ethically dubious character, but he makes his living upholding law and order, catching the bad guys. The titular cockfighter of this book, Frank Mansfield, is much closer to the criminal sociopaths that Hoke Mosley encounters, Junior from Miami Blues and Troy from Sideswipe, but that doesn’t keep you from rooting for Frank as he sets out on his compelling quest (the plot structure based loosely on The Odyssey) to become Cockfighter of the Year. Willeford is known as a master of the crime genre, but this feels more like a meticulous piece of sports journalism than a noir caper or confessional. Cockfighting was, and still is, illegal, an industry of the underworld that was tolerated in the South, even aided and abetted by both elected officials and law enforcement. There’s a lot to learn about the sport and culture of cockfighting from this book, but it’s also a very detailed cross-section of the contradictions of Southern culture. Cockfighting is cruel and brutal, and Willeford’s depictions of the matches, or “hacks”, are vivid and gory. But Willeford, a former horse trainer, shows the other side of cockfighting, the discipline and science behind training and raising a champion. While Frank appears to have very little love or compassion for his birds, he does respect and at times almost admires them, believing that cockfighting is “the only sport that can’t be fixed”, and "it's a crime not to arm a cock with spurs that will allow him to fight his best."Sworn to a self-imposed vow of silence until he achieves his goal, Frank sees himself as a man of character and honor, but he’s not without his shortcomings, most evident in his personal relationships. To Frank, and probably the author, women are primarily an impediment or distraction. Frank’s mentor, Ed Middleton, was forced to retire from cockfighting by his wife, who eventually dies, freeing Ed to return to refereeing the sport he loves. Early in the book, Frank attempts a brief career as a musician while trying to scrape together enough money to buy Ed’s ace cock, which he’s reluctantly agreed to sell. This leads to Frank’s tryst with a wealthy widow, Bernice, whom he eventually spurns like Odysseus averting the Sirens. When Frank returns home to evict his brother and sell his family farm, his fiance pleads with him to give up cockfighting and marry her. Frank walks out on her, but later, through correspondence, issues her an ultimatum. He invites her to the big tournament to watch him compete, convinced she’ll realize the beauty and honor of the sport she deems barbaric. Only then will he marry her. If he looses, he’ll give up cockfighting and settle down. If he wins, she has to accept his chosen career. Otherwise, he’ll never speak to her again. Frank also invites Bernice to the tournament, as if he’s hedging his bets with women the same way he keeps a steady rotation of fowl, leaving the reader to wonder if he has any more respect or empathy for his lovers than he does for his birds. Maybe less.This isn’t a muck-racking expose on animal cruelty—Willeford is no Upton Sinclair—but the book is exciting, informative, and at times very funny, although there isn’t much in the way of character development. Even though the point of view is Frank’s, first-person, it’s clear that he’s self-centered and indifferent to the suffering of others. Frank succeeds despite, and maybe even because of his own personal flaws, changing very little over the course of the book, other than maybe learning to be more cautious and wary of the trappings of hubris. His ace cock, after all, is named Icarus.

Aaron

The virtue of this book, apart from the tight Willeford writing style, is that it opens up a lens to the world of cockfighting, rightfully outlawed in this day and age. The details are fascinating - preparing a cock, training it, the fight itself, it's similar to any idiosyncratic activity that has its fair share of disciples (wildfowl hunting; bull fighting; dog fighting). It's a part of our history and Willeford has catalogued it in the midst of an against-all-odds story of banal heroism.

Sean

Not nearly as entertaining as The Woman Chaser or The Burnt Orange Heresy. It's a very straight story about a guy who really takes his cockfighting seriously. And man oh man did I learn a lot about cockfighting. More than enough, to be sure.

Andrew Maskall

Never thought much about fightin' cocks til I read this strange book.

Zayne

Frank Mansfield is perhaps my favorite fictional character of all time. A one-of-a-kind portrait of a backwoods obsession.

Ben Brackett

Excellent slice of Americana. I was irritated with the narrators pride at first, but got over it in seeing it as in real life whenever someone tells a story of course they are always the hero. By the end I was so caught up in his quest to win that I couldn't put the book down.

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