A Man's Field
"Cockfighter" by Charles Willeford, reviewed by Jesse Pearson
Hi. Welcome back to the Apology Substack. Clearly I have not been keeping up with this. If you’re a paid subscriber, please switch to free and then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can refund you, because posting here will continue to be sporadic, as is my wont, for at least a while. But please, stick around all ye free subs. Water always finds its level, and this newsletter will find a rhythm.
I recently considered simply reviewing everything I read each week, or at least on weeks when there’s no guest post or another thing to post. Would that be interesting though? This past week would have included Rudy Wurlitzer’s short novel Quake, Stephen King’s Carrie, lots of poetry, and various books on the occult in Ancient Greece. Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments.
In the meantime, here’s an archival piece. This is an introduction I wrote to the 2011 PictureBox Books edition of Charles Willeford’s classic novel Cockfighter. It’s a favorite book of mine, and it’s likely to be one of yours too if you give it a chance.
Thanks, more soon,
Cockfighter is perhaps the manliest novel I’ve ever read. That’s not just because, on its surface, it’s about a journey of blood sport, brotherly rivalries, fucking, drinking, and gambling. Cockfighter has a much deeper masculinity at its core. It’s a manliness of pride, pedantism, stubbornness, rabid self-sufficiency, and hardness. It’s the sort of manliness that both builds and consumes men.
Cockfighter was originally published as a paperback original, that standard format of the golden age of pulp, by the Chicago Paperback House in 1962. Not long after its release, the publisher was hit by a car and killed, and the business was shuttered. Over 20,000 copies of Cockfighter went straight into remaindersville. For Charles Willeford, a writer whose earlier career involved rampant rewriting and even retitling by callous pulp pubs (without his permission, Until I Am Dead became Pick-Up, Death Takes a Bride became Wild Wives, and so on), this tragedy was almost comic in its inevitability. But in 1972, Crown Publishers in New York released a new hardcover edition of Cockfighter. Willeford worked some significant revisions into this edition—not the least of which was changing back all of the “it’s” that the book’s original editor had turned into “its.” This has become the definitive version of Cockfighter, and it’s what you hold in your hands now. There’s also an Avon edition of Cockfighter floating around, which was put out in ’74 as a tie-in to the Monte Hellman-directed, Roger Corman-produced film adaptation. The only special feature that distinguishes it from the edition before it is that it features Warren Oates, the star of the film, on the cover. And that’s a pretty good feature.
This novel tells the story of Frank Mansfield’s quest to be named Cockfighter of the Year at the Southern Conference Tournament in Georgia. As Frank puts it, “To a cocker, this medal means as much as the Nobel Prize does to a scientist.” But to Mansfield, this accolade isn’t just about being the best cockfighter—it’s central to his idea of character. To be awarded the Cockfighter of the Year medal is to be validated as a man. Early in the novel, when Frank’s sometime mentor and benefactor Ed Middleton flashes his own medal from a previous year at Frank, it’s as if he’s showing him the key to a brotherhood, a mystical order that is Frank’s destiny. And, as we quickly learn, this quest is so holy to Frank that he’s sworn a vow of silence in honor of it. He won’t speak again until he is named Cockfighter of the Year. As the novel opens, he’s been completely silent for two years and seven months. In Cockfighter Journal, the posthumously published diary Willeford kept during the shooting of the Hellman film, he writes:
“Frank is the first totally silent hero since Singer, in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but Frank is willfully silent, not a deaf-mute. So Frank’s stubbornness will appeal to anyone who talks too much, which includes writers like myself.”
People who knew Willeford personally and have written about him remember a man who did tell constant stories and jokes, but who kept away from the more colorful aspects of his own history as topics of conversation. James Lee Burke, in his introduction to Cockfighter Journal, says of Willeford that he “did not talk about his own exploits” and that he was humble and loyal besides. Though Willeford was a decorated hero for his service in WWII, parts of which he spent serving under General George S. Patton and fighting at the Battle of the Bulge, he never brought it up. He is said to have maintained a Mansfield-like silence regarding these episodes, which another man would have picked over and proclaimed constantly. When he did eventually write memoirs about the Depression (I Was Looking for a Street) and the war (Something About A Soldier), he was laconic, witty, and modest. It was bemused and loving reportage of the past, not self-aggrandizing mythmaking. With this tightlipped attitude, Willeford assumed a place in the lineage of silent manhood that started in antiquity and continued right up to the men who survived the Depression and fought in WWII and Korea.
Mansfield’s vow begins as penance for his own pridefulness. He tells us that, just about three years ago, he drunkenly challenged a fellow cocker to a private hack in a hotel room late at night before an official tournament. Mansfield’s rooster is quickly defeated, and he sees that it was his braggadocio that cost him his bird and his dignity. Instead of donning a hairshirt or sitting atop a pole, Frank deprives himself of his own voice. To Frank, speech—easy communication—is a gift, not a right. And men don’t always deserve gifts.
But Frank—so full of opinions, advice, and codes—sees himself as also punishing the rest of the world by going silent. The epigraph that Willeford chose for the second, definitive version of Cockfighter comes from Ezra Pound. “What matters is not the idea a man holds, but the depth at which he holds it.” This speaks to the value Frank places on his thoughts—and on reserving them until they are deserved by the listener—as much as it comments on the idea of deep, considered thought for its own sake. As Frank finds strength in silence, he sees weakness in those who speak too much. And, as Frank learns, silence invites in others the urge to confess. He says:
“I was growing weary of always being on the receiving end of personal confidences and long sad stories. 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.”
Even in the face of this torture, Frank stays mute. Cockfighter is, in part, an extended study of male stubbornness. As Willeford writes in Cockfighter Journal, “… it is only incidental that Frank Mansfield is a cockfighter; he is a man with an obsession, and the novel could just as easily have been about an insurance salesman, or an account executive for an advertising firm.” Willeford, again in the Journal, describes Frank as “aggressively relentless… but not a ruthless man.” This is an important distinction. Frank is not a bad man. He can be pragmatic to an almost robotic degree. He’s arrogant. He’s an alpha. But he sees himself as working in the service of a moral and ethical code. His stubbornness is a symptom of his faith. Frank, really, is a modern Stoic. The logic and dispassionate calm that Frank uses to navigate the world is Stoic in its truest definition. Not unemotional or cold, but carefully reasoned, brave, and—according to his own guidelines—virtuous. And just like that famous Stoic Marcus Aurelius, Frank Mansfield has an arsenal of maxims and observations. They are peppered casually throughout Cockfighter, and when compiled they form his own sort of Meditations. Here are some of them:
• “Two-toned shoes indicate an ambivalent personality, a man who can’t make up his mind.”
• “There are three good ways to win a fight: A blow to the solar plexus, first, an inscrutable expression on your face, or displaying a sharp knife blade to your opponent.”
• “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.”
• “… if a man ever breaks a promise he has made to himself he disintegrates.”
• “When a woman starts to scream unreasonably, it’s time to leave.”
• “ … when it comes to good-looking women, Chattanooga has got prettier girls than Dallas, Texas.”
• “… experience, rather than experiment, would be my best teacher.”
Frank, an autodidact (he tells us at one point that he will read anything, from an encyclopedia to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), becomes in turn didactic—not just to the reader, but also to a character like Omar Baradinsky, whom he directs, like a teacher to a student, with written notes and mimed actions. This is perhaps something Frank has earned, as the bulk of his knowledge—cockfighting—is not only specialized, but also expert. Cockfighter, being a portrait of a stubborn Stoic, also is a catalog of what he knows.
Willeford was fond of telling people that Cockfighter was based, loosely, on The Odyssey. In fact, he had already based the start of an earlier novel, in 1951, on Homer’s work. Entitled The Odyssey, and eventually retitled Another Damn Odyssey, it was subtitled: “Being an account of the journey to an unknown, exotic land, by that astute resolutionist, Russell Haxby; and of his adventures among the enchanted inhabitants of that fabulous region.” Ultimately, this work was only a fragment, though Haxby became the character of Richard Hudson in 1960’s The Woman Chaser. Haxby was a cowboy and Hudson was a used car salesman, but they both undertake the same journey to Hollywood to become a filmmaker. Willeford’s urge to write a novel that explicitly parallels The Odyssey was passed on to Cockfighter.
But, really, upon a side-by-side reading of the journeys of Odysseus and Frank Mansfield, the comparison starts to fall apart. Willeford himself admitted that even though certain characters in his book are echoes of Homer’s characters, his story doesn’t follow the same chain of events as that ancient text. To hear Willeford tell it, Omar, the Madison Avenue adman turned hillbilly-attired cocker, is his novel’s version of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. In the sense that Frank is Omar’s mentor, this makes some sense. The character of Mary Elizabeth is this novel’s stand-in for Penelope, though their fates are very different. Tom Peeples, the young bumpkin whose cheating ways Frank foils, has a patch over one eye, and Willeford called him his Cyclops. Ed Middleton is Cockfighter’s Nestor. This too makes basic sense. If someone has to be this novel’s Nestor, it’s Ed.
I get the impression that Willeford, in saying that The Odyssey was an antecedent to Cockfighter, is really just saying that any story of a man on a tireless quest has to contain some of the DNA of that ur-quest. The more specific parallels that Willeford started to draw seem to me to be more in the spirit of fun than in conscious, faithful inspiration.
If Willeford had intended for Cockfighter to really be his Odyssey, he wouldn’t have left a shred of doubt. He was a deliberate writer, direct and declarative. In Willeford, a 1997 biography, critic Don Herron tells of bringing Charles to speak to the Maltese Falcon Society, a group of pulp enthusiasts that Herron oversaw. Willeford told them that “he preferred clean, solid names for his heroes, and he wanted a good one for [Cockfighter]. He decided on Mansfield for the last name because cockfighting was a man’s field. Since his hero was sincere, honest to a fault, a deal said a deal done, he selected Frank.” As a zealous fan of excessive-parsing-as-solitary-parlor-game, this confirmation of Willeford’s intentions is heartily satisfying to me. It also forces me to wonder how much of a degree of intentionality there is in this novel regarding that other definition of “cock” and the idea of men using roosters as surrogates for said cocks to fight each other in tests of mettle. Are the cocks of Cockfighter stand-ins for the cocks of the cockfighters? I’d find it hard to believe that Willeford didn’t intend for us to have the leeway to at least think about it. In fact, in Cockfighter Journal, he makes a jaded reference to overhearing members of the film crew making cock jokes.
Just a brief digression here before we address the darker elements of cockfighting: If you’re interested in reading Willeford dealing tenderly with roosters, you can find that in his short story “The Alectryomancer,” from his 1963 collection The Machine in Ward Eleven. Alectryomancy is an ancient form of divination in which a rooster is tethered in the center of a circle, the circumference of which is lined with all the letters of the alphabet. Kernels of grain are placed at each letter, and as the rooster struts around and picks grain from this pile and that, he spells out one’s fortune. In Willeford’s imagining, the rooster does indeed know men’s fates. Taken as two sides of a coin, “The Alectryomancer” and Cockfighter show us Willeford deploying roosters as hefty mythological props in the lives of men. Powerless but loved in the novel, powerful and feared in the short story.
Now, as for the actual activity of cockfighting and Willeford’s feelings regarding it, he tells us in the Journal that he’s “neutral about the sport—neither for nor against it.” Willeford did, however, spend time among professional cockers in researching the book, and he was proud to learn that upon publication it was passed around and generally respected in the American cockfighting community. Willeford says in the Journal that, “If a cockfighter didn’t love his roosters, he wouldn’t be able to fight them. This simple secret is what outsiders can never understand.” Still, it’s hard to find love in the more brutal aspects of cockfighting that are depicted in this book.
The indifferent treatment of the corpses of birds, the truly horrific conditioning tests that Frank conducts toward the middle of the book, and the detailed account of the novel’s climactic match will certainly repulse many readers. But then, yes, Frank does have tears in his eyes at that final fight. Is it love? Is it an acknowledgment of the end of his quest, for better or for worse? It could be that Frank, the sensitive troubadour amidst cockfighters, sees more clearly the parallels between men and fighting roosters. There is also a deep intimacy between Frank and his birds, as when he sucks away the blood from his rooster’s wounds in the book’s first fight. As Frank says, “A chicken’s brain is about the size of a BB, but within those tiny brains there is an infinite variety of character and personality traits.” Perhaps the love that Willeford sees from a cockfighter for his birds is like the love that a good general has for his troops. And remember, as the author himself tells us, this is not a book about cockfighting—not really. It’s a book about men. Men tend to deal in brutality.
The reader who can overcome whatever aversion they might have to the inhumanity of cockfighting will be well rewarded for sticking it out. Most of the best myths are bloody and nauseous, and Cockfighter, grounded as it is in myth, is not an exception. The detailed attention paid to the more grisly aspects of the sport here renders the novel, at times, virtually a cockfighting manual. There are lengthy passages in Cockfighter regarding breeding and bloodlines, conditioning and training, equipment, pitting… all the practical concerns are covered. As Frank puts it, “There is no such thing as a passive interest in cockfighting.” Frank sees cockfighting as an honorable sport practiced by honorable people. He tells us that Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were enthusiasts. He finds biblical references to gamecocks. He tells us that cockfighting is the one sport left that’s impossible to fix. The roosters and their battles are Frank’s life, and the lives of most of the men he knows. His voice, so central to his presence in the world, literally depends upon his triumph as a cockfighter. Until he has mounted the top of that heap, he will stoically—even proudly—shoulder his vow.