Chris's Reviews > Cockfighter

Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
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's review
Dec 31, 2011

really liked it
Read from December 24 to 31, 2011

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.

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Reading Progress

12/26/2011 page 48
24.0% "This book is as much about Cockfighting the sport as it is a Cockfighter embattled. Not complaining. Things I learned: Cockfighting used to be legal in the South(state trooper works security at one cockfight),and there used to be a trade mag called Southern Cockfighter. He's trying to scrape money together to buy a new cock. Will this turn into a caper story? Book opens with a fucked up relationship, as usual."
12/26/2011 page 48
24.0% "Chapter 5 seems pretty important. We learn about the Cockfighter's Code as well as Frank Mansfield(the titular cockfighter)'s code. Hank, who's taken a vow of silence, believes 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." We also meet Doc Riordan, a quack who owes Frank money and is developing a miracle cure, Licarbo."
12/26/2011 page 60
30.0% ""A man can learn 4 things from a cock: To fight, to get up early, to eat with his family, and to protect his spouse when she gets in trouble." —Chanakya, 320 B.C. Frank can fight and wake up early, but isn't so big on family or protecting spouses, admittedly."
12/29/2011 page 89
45.0% "Frank benefits through his vow of silence. Success by omission—similar to the protagonist in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, although Frank is clearly much more intelliegent—allows him to land a cushy gig playing guitar and bed a wealthy widow. He squanders all of this because he is prideful."
12/29/2011 page 106
53.0% "Frank's fiance wants him to give up cockfighting, much like the insistence of the wife of his mentor, Ed Middleton. Frank seems to have general contempt for his brother, who seems incompetent and lazy. Frank decides to force his brother to sell the farm, so he can raise the money he needs. He abandons his fiance, taking for granted that she'll wait for him, even though she insists she won't. Her brother hates him."
12/29/2011 page 121
61.0% "Frank incurs a lot of debt assuming the Judge will able to sell his farm. He's ruined his relationship with his brother and possibly lost his fiance, all to own a chicken named Icarus. Hubris? The gamble pays off, although he doesn't get nearly what the farm is worth, if he winds up marrying his fiance, he'll get the farm back; it was sold to her brother. Comes out ahead due to Ed's reluctant generosity. Ed is dying."
12/30/2011 page 148
74.0% "Now in business with his friend, Omar, the ex-adman. This is the training montage part of the book. Cuts a cock's feet off and sets him on fire to see if he would have been a good fighter. Invites both Mary Beth and Bernice to cockfight. Not sure if he's hedging his bets or plans on pitting them against each other."
12/31/2011 page 173
87.0% "Things are going well. They're winning a lot of money and not losing very many chickens. They almost win a tournament. Frank encounters Burke, the man who beat him at the beginning of the book, now married to Dody his ex-girlfriend from also from the beginning. Chapter 14 ends with a newspaper account of her attacking him after he wins a hack. Is this foreshadowing a showdown btw Mary Beth & Bernice?"
12/31/2011 page 188
94.0% "Frank shows caution for the first time in the book by not competing in an impromptu hotel tourney, which winds up being robbed. Cockfighting is illegal, but mostly tolerated by law enforcement, except apparently during elections, and fear of a bust keeps him away. He goes to a private "hack" where he's tipped off to slippery floors and Icky easily defeats a legendary but over-fought 2 to 1 favorite."
12/31/2011 page 200
100.0% "Good ending. Don't want to post any spoilers more than I have."

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Chris 2 chapters in it's pretty good.

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