Friday, October 14, 2016
FFB: Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
Frank Mansfield is a Florida-based bird trainer, handler and gambler who, when we meet him, is fixing a cock fight by handicapping his chicken. I will not say how he is doing this and only note that those first few pages will give any reader a horrifying heads up of what to expect in the rest of the book.
During the tournament season, Frank travels around the southern U.S., entering his birds into matches and betting on the outcomes. While cockfighting is now illegal in all 50 states, when Willeford wrote the novel, it existed in a shadow world, technically illegal, but still a popular sport.
Willeford tells his story in a blunt, matter-of-fact style using Frank as his first-person narrator. But, too much of the book reads like a how-to manual on the care and feeding of gamecocks, peppered with flashes of shocking violence.
The novel also meanders off into Frank’s affair with a wealthy woman and his returning to his hometown to have a quick roll in the hay with a country girl who always hoped to marry him. Those sections are not surprising after reading Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, about two dislikable characters. Frank is a pretty dislikable guy, but I will grudgingly say this for him, he is very good at his job.
The blow-by-blow descriptions of the many fights also make Cockfighter a difficult book to get through. But it is the author’s skill, and Willeford (1919-1988) was a very skillful writer, that kept me hanging in there to find out what happened to Frank and his champion rooster in the big, final match.
(To read about other forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)