Cockfighter: Charles Willeford

Book cover for Cockfighter is a picture of a rooster with a bright red comb

COCKFIGHTER written by Charles Willeford. First published in 1962. Pages: 217; point of view: first person; category: noir; setting: Florida and Georgia; standalone or series: standalone novel; theme: cockfighting; quote from the book (out of context):

“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 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.”

Frank Mansfield is a professional cockfighter. He’s made a name for himself in the sport. For the past 10 years he’s been obsessed with winning the title of Cockfighter of the Year at the Southern Conference Tournament in Georgia. It is the greatest achievement in one of the toughest sports in the world. To win the award means you’re the best damned cockfighter in the South and with the medal to prove it. In the past 15 years, the award has been won four times. The tourney is by invitation only and given only to the top men in the sport.

Frank takes a self-imposed oath of silence to help him reach his goal. He hasn’t said a word in three years.  He often finds himself on the receiving end of unsolicited confessions. Frank is principled and determined. Self-disciplined and stubborn. It’s easy to offend him as he has a code he follows. He’s shrewd and well versed in life, people and the sport that he loves.

For a portion of the story, Frank travels with his Gibson guitar to earn money and to collect on some debts to reinvest in some gamecocks. His journey through the South takes him to some shady night clubs and along the way he meets a lonely widow. Frank’s home is the family farm. He has a brother living there with his wife and there’s some family drama over his inheritance. His fiancé opposes the sport, often asking him to quit. After earning enough money, Frank partners up for the season and participates in the tourney.

My Take On the Story

Charles Willeford is one of the best discoveries this year alongside Derek Raymond. His voice is completely captivating and compelling. COCKFIGHTER is mesmerizing yet brutal, dark and violent. Willeford sketches out the lives of drifters and loners well. The characters in this book are completely believable. The author gives us glimpses of the seedy life in the back woods of the South. It’s commendable in how he draws you into the story and keeps you turning the pages with some well placed tension and character arcs. The writing is very descriptive.

The look inside the world of cockfighting will be one I will never forget. Reading about this sport requires a strong stomach. While hard to read it is the most riveting part of the book. The cockfights were as one would expect: bloody and violent. There’s more than a few in here and Charles Willeford covers all aspects of this sport. Cockfighting is illegal in the U.S. but by no means is it abolished.

Frank made for an engaging and likable narrator. The training techniques involved in conditioning gamecocks was fascinating and informative. The narrator happens to be the best at conditioning and fighting gamecocks; and his methods are severe. The sport isn’t without its detractors but people from all walks of life are in this tight fraternity. Some people even leave their high paying jobs or even their wives behind to join the sport. There are a handful who will break the rules, do things to get them barred for life and it doesn’t take but one time to get blacklisted. The Code of Conduct between cockfighters is taken very seriously. Once blacklisted your participation in the sport is over and there’s nothing you can do to reverse it.

The story is set in the South so there is some racism and a culture and code of behavior from the old days. This story is categorized as “noir” and the only crimes in here are cockfighting and gambling. The story has a strong sense of time and place. All characters were well-developed and stood out in their own way.  I don’t have much to criticize about only that where there wasn’t much action the story tended to drag a bit. After everything is said and done, this was an engrossing read. There was a movie made from the book, titled, BORN TO KILL, in 1974. The sport of cockfighting can be traced back to the 17th Century. From Wikipedia, the first book on the sport,The Commendation of Cocks and Cock Fighting, was written in 1607.

13 thoughts on “Cockfighter: Charles Willeford”

  1. Keishon – I always admire an author who can really place me in a region like that. I have to admit I’m not one for needing a strong stomach as I read. But still, this one sounds like such a compelling look at the cockfighting world. Thanks for a fine (as ever) review.

  2. I love the first quote you provided about anarchy and confusion. That’s us, and apparently cock-fighting as well. It would be difficult for me to read this book, although everything else about it intrigues me. Thanks for the review, I can at least appreciate Willeford’s writing vicariously.

    1. No problem Darlynne and thanks for dropping by. I realize that not everybody will want to run out and read this one. I’m glad I got through it.

  3. Keishon, great piece. Glad you’re loving Willeford. This will be a re-read when I find it. My brother in law got me a coopy of the film, which I haven’t yet watched.

  4. I am having an approach-avoidance conflict with this book. And the author. Difficult topics, but I will definitely try one of his books. Very well-done review, convinced me a book about this subject could be worth reading.

    1. Well if this book is unsavory there is his Hoke Mosely books that are terrific. Well, I only read one, Miami Blues but plan to read the rest.

  5. Keishon, this is a fine review of a fascinating book. I’ve heard of Charles Willeford although I didn’t know he wrote this one. Cockfighting is quite popular in the Third World, now emerging economies like India, especially to the south of the country. I believe they’re brutal, as you point out.

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