by Charles Willeford
When we first meet Frank Mansfield, he is on what is probably the lowest streak of his life. He has only a few meager dollars left in his pocket and only one chicken left to his name. What's that you say? You, too, only have a few dollars and not a chicken to speak of? A valid point, to be sure. But Frank isn't like you and me. He doesn't have a 9 to 5 job and a steady income. Frank is a cockfighter, and in his line of work money and chickens are the very lifeblood of existence.
It's not all bad. As I said, Frank does have one scrappy little chicken left, a reliable pickup truck, a cozy trailer, and yes, even the affection of a (too) young girl. But it's only a matter of moments before poor down-on-his-luck Frank is stripped even of these.
And that's when the story really begins, and we follow Frank through a year in his life as he struggles to turn his luck around, replenish his bankroll, and rebuild his stable in time for the next big cockfighting tournament, his desperate last-ditch attempt to earn the highly coveted Cockfighter of the Year award. Then, and only then, will he break his monk-like vow of silence.
With a few unlikely detours along the way (including a brief but memorable stretch in which Frank becomes a semi-professional guitar player), it soon becomes evident that Cockfighter is about, well... a cockfighter. That is to say, it's not so much about cockfights as it is about a man whose chosen profession (and undying passion) just so happens to be in this particular underground arena. He may be our protagonist, but it's difficult to call him our hero. He's a complicated and at times morally-flawed man--though hardly a morally-bankrupt one. While reading of his exploits, you're just as likely to be disgusted as not, and yet through it all, you can't help but root for the guy. And although he narrates the entire novel, you can't wait for him to rediscover his voice.
The author was careful to paint a complete portrait of a man, the good and the bad, and because of this Frank seems like a real and genuine person. The type of person you would probably like to chat with in a bar, mind you, but not necessarily befriend.
Author Charles Willeford must have done a fair share of research as well, or at least he is one hell of a bullshitter, as the entire cockfighting world depicted here seems authentic as well. Perhaps too authentic in a few cases when too much technical detail and insider information slows down what is otherwise a compelling and fast-paced read that will keep you turning the pages well into the night.
Willeford is best known for his hardboiled detective fiction, so it's curious that this 1962 work was chosen to be adapted into film. Perhaps not so curiously, it didn't do well in the box office although it has found its audience since. Produced by Roger Corman (!), directed by Monte Hellman and scripted by the author himself, how can you go wrong? Needless to say, you can expect a film review very soon.
To put this novel in perspective, imagine a novelization of Charles Bronson's Hard Times written as a collaboration of Elmore Leonard and Charles Bukowski...but with roosters instead of streetfighters. And, even if you don't like the book, you can take practically any sentence out of context and giggle like a school girl at the unintended sexual connotations. You dirty birdie, you!
"I pointed to the coop and lifted a forefinger to show Burke I only had the one cock."
"Blowing tobacco smoke at a cock's head irritates it to a fighting pitch, and I was smoking a mild, mentholated cigarette. I enveloped the cock's head with one more cloud of smoke and returned him to his coop. Too much smoke could make a cock dizzy."
"Little David strutted back and forth, pecked twice at my lifeless cock, and then crowed his victory."
By no stretch of the imagination can I ever see myself condoning cockfighting. But Cockfighter? I'm all about it, baby.
Get your wattle on.