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Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
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Cockfighter (1962)

by Charles Willeford

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» See also 9 mentions

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I have absolutely no idea how this book and its movie came back to the surface of my mind. I watched the film in 1975, I think, and I'm sure it was with Paul the film student. (He was also a drunk, and to date the only lover I've ever had that I allowed to hit me.)

Come to think on it, he's also the source of one of my most enduring pleasures, that of watching films whose books I've read or plan to read, and of making fantasy films of the books I read that haven't got films. Thanks, Paul, for growing me a spine and for giving me that deeply satisfying fantasy life. (He died in 1986, so this is more in the nature of valediction than praise.)

Anyway...I recommend the book to men because it's about us at our most male and least woman-centered. It's brutal and tough and awful. It's a clarion call to the smarter ones of us to look at what's actually going on in our heads and fucking stop it already. Not because women don't like us for what they've done to us, but because hurting ourselves is just damned stupid. The cult of macho is a male reaction to rejection and judgment, as Willeford presents it; this being what I've observed, it had me nodding along as I read the book.

Where the film falls down, I think, is in the nature of the storytelling medium. On its surface, this film's about how a man decides not to live with a woman but to sell every-damn-thing he owns and double down on the world of cockfighting. Ultimately this works out, in the sense that his cock wins the championship.

Not one single human female would watch this movie and think, "oh that was fun." The image of women in it is as emasculating damaging emotional black holes. Yeah, great date-night flick, eh what? And men come off as damnfool eedjits without a lick of sense. That both these things are true doesn't make them any easier to swallow. And on film, there are lost nuances because actors speaking lines aren't readers absorbing language use on multiple levels. So it's no wonder to me that this film tanked.

But it's a misunderstood work of art, Cockfighter is. Its darkest moments and grimmest interpretations are all true and accurate. That's intentional on Willeford's part, based on the entirety of his ouevre. (Go here to read a really, really interesting academic take on Willeford as writer and man manqué.) The levels and ideas that this brutal, cruel, emotionally stopped body of work contains are rewarding to unpick and enjoyable to contemplate.

For Y chromosome bearers. ( )
1 vote richardderus | Apr 6, 2018 |
This is a great read and not just because I was raised around cockfighting. I've loaned the novel to several friends and they've ordered copies to keep. The plot is fast, interesting, the characters unique but believable, and the tension is ever present: Will Frank Mansfield achieve his goal of Cockfighter of the Year award at the Milledgeville Tournament? The novel is a classic example of the noir fiction genre with a tough but principled protagonist, dames that always play a minor role (yes, with plenty of misogynistic asides by Frank). The writing is tight and assured. I ordered the movie starring Warren Oates. It's not moviemaking at its finest, but Willeford plays the Ed Middleton character and does it well. The cockfights are authentic, too. ( )
  ucla70 | Nov 30, 2016 |
A compelling, fascinating and repellent Odyssey

“..the only sport that can’t be fixed, perhaps the only fair contest in left in America”

Frank Mansfield has an obsession to become Cocker of the Year. Years ago he swore a vow of silence until he wins that elusive Prize and now that he has lost everything he is more determined than ever that this is the year it’s going to be his.

Loosley based on Homer odyssey Willieford paints a picture of a "sport" and lifestyle you probably know nothing about, one fascinating and repellent in equal measure. A bit like the narrator, a obsessed figure whose entire being revolves around this chosen career. He compares everyone to his work ethic and chosen field, he doesn't grow or change, his quest consumes him. He is a horrible person but you can't hate him (much) nor you can't stop reading. His drive is utterly compelling. His inner monologue pins you down and forces you to turn the page.

"The man who is unable to talk back is at the mercy of these people. He is like an inexperienced priest who listens tolerantly to the first simple confessions of impure thoughts, and then listens with increasing horror as the sins mount, one outdoing the other until he is shocked into dumbness"

It's a deceptively simple book and writing style. We may see the world through Franks "frank" world view (yes intentionally named) but others’ reactions can be telling. The author’s moral compass could be anywhere but his fascination and research burns into the story and carries you with him. Yes it is graphic, the point later in the book when he trains chickens .. is really.. um.. horrific but it’s not just us who thinks so, Frank’s partner think so too. You don't need to lend your empathy just witness, take the devils bargain you will be rewarded.

Of course it helps that the writing is smooth and straight and engaging. It helps that the pace keeps up even when you are getting instruction. Anyone writing a 1st person should look to this as a lesson, how to comment on your commentator.

"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.

Highly recommended if you can overcome your distaste. A unique book that shouldn't be missed. I can't say I am ever going to watch the film though. ( )
  clfisha | Oct 9, 2013 |
"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
  Mary_Overton | Apr 22, 2012 |
After figuring out that Monte Hellman's Cockfighter was based on this book I checked it out from the library but was disappointed by the unconvincing "moral heroics" of the main character: He's a low life cockfighter, but wait a sec, this rugged individual is also a man of solid principle with a strong moral compass! Goodness! I suppose Willeford wanted to surprise and impress the reader with the essential goodness and high principles of a seemingly seedy "sportsman" from the lower echelons of the social ladder but it just came off as being unnecessary and annoying. Sure, the main character does a couple questionable things but overall he's a redeemable character. Which was saccharine and boring. But the detailed descriptions of the culture and practice of cockfighting was totally engaging, like getting a glimpse into an different world. In this sense it's similar to Willeford's excellent memoir, Something About a Soldier, which details his early experience in the army during the great depression. ( )
  donaldmorgan | Feb 8, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charles Willefordprimary authorall editionscalculated
KirwanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First, I closed the windows and bolted the flimsy aluminium door.
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"The man who is unable to talk back is at the mercy of these people. He is like an inexperienced priest who listens tolerantly to the first simple confessions of impure thoughts, and then listens with increasing horror as the sins mount, one outdoing the other until he is shocked into dumbness"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679734716, Paperback)

The sport is cockfighting, and Frank Mansfield is the Cockfighter--a silent and fiercely contrary man whose obsession with winning will cost him almost everything.  In this haunting, ribald, and percussively violent work, the author of the Hoke Mosely detective novels yields a floodlit vision of the cockpits and criminal underbelly of the rural South.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:14 -0400)

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