I’m embarrassed to say that, until now, I hadn’t read a Charles Willeford book. I own a few, but had never quite gotten around to them.

The good folks at PictureBox were kind enough to send me their new edition of Willeford’s Cockfighter. I nearly gasped when I opened the packaging–without knowing a thing about what was on the inside, I was impressed by the beauty of what was on the outside. Striking cover art and graphic design, a rock solid binding, and an entire package obviously made with love.

So I started reading, and Wow. I’m only about a third of the way through, and I already know that I’ll be reading a lot more Willeford.

At my request, PictureBox was kind enough to send me this brief history of the novel, a revised excerpt from Jesse Pearson‘s introduction.

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The 2011 edition of Cockfighter contains the complete text, proofed by Charles Willeford’s widow, Betsy, as well an introduction by Jesse Pearson. It’s printed on fine archival paper and wrapped in a new cover by Yentus & Booher.

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 of all the “it’s” that the book’s original editor had turned into “its.” This has become the definitive version of Cockfighter, and it’s the one PictureBox and Family have just reissued. 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 is a pretty good feature.

Cockfighter 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.” 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.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I finish the novel.

I tried to find out more about cover artist Jonathan Harkham. I couldn’t find the painter, but I did find the musician. I’m not sure if it’s the same guy or not. Anyway, this dark little number I stumbled across in the process may appeal to some of you.