Review: Cockfighter by Charles Willeford


Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter is the story of Frank Mansfield, a professional cocker who has taken a vow that he will not speak until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year award for the Southern Conference circuit in which he competes. Achieving this will require enormous work, because he is destitute after losing everything betting on a fight in which his rooster is killed. If his goal is to be reached, he needs to get a bankroll, acquire and train gamecocks, and rack up enough victories to be eligible to compete in the Southern Conference Finals.

I’m not sure Cockfighter is a great book. I’m not even sure that it’s a good book. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t well worth reading. Its principle virtue is in its detailed description of a world that very few readers are likely to have knowledge of and which is likely lost if not close to it. We learn of the rules, written and unwritten, that dictate the cocker’s behavior in and out of the pit. We learn of the tools and implements of this savage sport. We learn how roosters are conditioned and trained for battle.

The culture of cockfighting is fascinating, repellant in many ways, admirable in many others. To become a champion cocker requires huge discipline, a vast body of highly-specialized knowledge, and a natural ability. Cockfighting isn’t a game, a hobby, or even a job. It defines the cocker’s existence. It is his entire life.

But while cockfighting brings out some of the best in men (as Jesse Pearson notes in the excellent introduction to this edition, “Cockfighter is perhaps the manliest novel I’ve ever read.”) it also allows some of their worst traits to run amok. The only purpose of women in this novel is to serve men, with either food or sex. Violence is everywhere, and not just between the roosters. And, of course, the sport itself is brutal and many would say evil.

Cockfighter‘s chief flaws are its main character, Frank Mansfield, and his development. While certainly fascinating enough to hold a reader’s attention, he is unlikable in enough ways to render him unsympathetic. And Frank grows little if it all during his journey–the man at the end of the novel is nearly the same as the man at the beginning of the novel. For a book about such an interesting character, this is disappointing.

Despite my misgivings, Cockfighter is worth reading for Willeford’s tight prose and for its documentary-like chronicling of a bloodsport and the culture that surrounds it.

If you do decide to read it, let me highly recommend the recent edition from PictureBox, second in their series of Willeford reissues. Every aspect of this printing is beautiful, from the cover to the binding to the high-quality paper it’s printed on.

Do not purchase the currently available Kindle edition. It’s a bootleg and it doesn’t use Willeford’s definitive manuscript.

More info:


Jesse Pearson

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