Fowl Play: Charles Willeford's cult chicken novel

Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter was first obscurely released in 1962, later revised in ’72 for hardcover and excerpted in Sports Illustrated, prompting incensed reader mail about its SPCA-baiting subject matter. Now, thanks to the Brooklyn-based PictureBox, Willeford’s unsentimental and funny bloodsport drama is in print again.

Cockfighter strains to bust out of the pulp-fiction ghetto it was born into, as has Willeford’s body of work as a whole; since his death in 1988, his readership has gone up-market, from cult to academy (2001 brought a study with title Comedy After Postmodernism: Rereading Comedy from Edward Lear to Charles Willeford). Willeford’s “comedies,” which only certain skewed sensibilities will recognize as such, are poker-faced reports from the fringes of legality and sanity, novels populated by cracked art critics, skid-row romantics, blithe psychopaths, morally bankrupt Miami bachelors, and, in the case of Cockfighter, chicken men.

Cockfighter is the interior monologue of Frank Mansfield, age thirty-two, who makes his living training gamecocks to fight to the death. The first-person approach is a matter of some storytelling necessity. Following the loss of a prize bird because of his big mouth, Frank takes a vow of silence, not to be broken until he’s recognized as the finest man in his field (he has set his sights on the Cockfighter of the Year award at the Southern Conference Tournament). As the novel opens, Frank hasn’t spoken a word in two years and seven months.

From the opening, the reader is riding shotgun on a rural route travelogue of the cockfighting circuit, across Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, trailer parks, and back-country rings peopled with “accordion necked fruit tramp bettors.” The book is so dense with how-to trade secrets that you can learn almost anything you want to know about the conditioning and the handling of a bird for combat, including proper diet, exercise, and chestnuts like “Blowing tobacco smoke at a cock’s head irritates it to a fighting pitch.” You learn also what not to do, the ukase against between-rounds testicular massages being just one item in the cocker’s strict code of honor.

An expert at documenting low-life America in Kodachrome colors, Willeford was one of the finest curveballing genre-fiction writers of the twentieth century. Willeford began in the pulps, then as ever a literature by the blue-collar set. His book-jacket biographies invariably include a catalog of the odd jobs he was alleged to hold at one time or another. The two really important ones, though, were soldier (he retired from active duty in 1956, after 20 years of service, as a master sergeant) and writer (he published a chapbook of poetry in 1948, his first novel in ’53, and was still working when he went on the oxygen tank.) Willeford wrote and published assiduously, but didn’t earn a big advance until the mid 1980s, when he belatedly found an audience with his four-volume sequence of Hoke Moseley detective novels, tapping the decade’s vogue for Miami crime stories. In one of life’s wicked ironies that he was so fond of recording, Willeford died soon after hitting the jackpot.

Before Hoke, the nearest Willeford came to a break was the sale of Cockfighter to the movies. It was filmed in 1974, directed by Monte Hellman and starring Warren Oates. In his mid-fifties when the movie was shot, Willeford had aged sufficiently to play the role of Ed Middleton, the retired breeder of whom Mansfield thinks, “If I happen to live long enough, I want to be exactly like him someday.” But increased professional esteem was not immediately forthcoming: Willeford’s name was misspelled on the film’s poster. Jimmy Carter attended the Atlanta premiere, but there were few paying customers afterward.

It’s a natural fit, then, that Cockfighter should take as its subject thankless, early-rising labor, and the dogged struggle for notoriety. A native-born American absurdist, Willeford applies his considerable dry wit to the national fixation on work, which colors Frank Mansfield’s perspective on everything and everyone. On a woman’s place, Frank’s perspective is distinctly pre-lib: “Outside of taking care of a man’s needs, women don’t get much pleasure out of life, anyways.” Frank floats between two lovers, his long-term fiancée back home, Mary Elizabeth, and the well-to-do widow, Bernice Hungerford. Frank’s mind is made up when he finds out which one can stomach his profession.

Likewise, Frank silently evaluates all of the men around him against their relationship to their jobs. His partner and understudy, Omar Baradinsky, is a former Madison Avenue man who abandoned the salaried life to learn everything there is to know about fighting birds “at the dangerous age of fifty, the age when a man begins to wonder just what in the hell has he got out of his life so far, anyway?” Elsewhere on his journey, Frank passes men who’ve stalled or lost their way, broke-down junkers on the shoulder of Frank’s expressway journey. Jacksonville pharmacist Doc Riordan waits in his sepulchral office on a windfall that’s never coming from his new indigestion remedy, Licarbo. Back on the old homestead, Frank’s younger brother Randy, who read law but never hung a shingle, is now dressing in frayed shirt cuffs and selling off acreage to keep himself in whisky. Of Ed Middleton, pushed to give up his career as a trainer by his wife, Frank muses: “By giving up cockfighting, he was giving up his entire existence and, like most elderly men who retire, he probably won’t live very long—with nothing to do.” Even gamecocks are evaluated in terms of their work ethic, as Frank ponders the superiority of fighters raised free-range: “Like members of a welfare state, chickens who don’t have to get the hell out and scratch for their living will soon learn to stand around waiting for a free handout, getting fat and useless.”

It is tempting to take all of Frank’s ideas as Willeford’s, though this short-changes the author-as-inventor. This is one of the mistakes implicit in the introduction by former VICE magazine editor-in-chief Jesse Pierson, whose recruitment is part of the demographic-outreach program by PictureBox, here with their second Willeford re-issue after republishing his memoir I Was Looking for a Street last year. VICE was widely read for its Guides, collections of maxims about sex, drinking, etc., and Pierson interprets Willeford’s book in the same spirit: Willeford’s Guide to Masculinity. But Willeford was much more than an anecdotist or lifestyle brand. He was a superlative, imaginative writer, a true one-off who uniquely married the tensile prose of the best American hard-boiled fiction to the deadpan humor of the European moderns. And Cockfighter is one of his best: an ugly topic, a handsome piece of work.

Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to The Village Voice.