'Cockfighter': Writer Wins His Spurs

Friday, December 31, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The ancient blood sport of cockfighting is on its last legs in these United States. In only Louisiana and New Mexico is it still legal, and in the latter it is under heavy attack. Its opponents argue that cockfighting "is wrong, morally wrong, legally wrong, and every other kind of wrong," while its defenders insist that it is "a legitimate, honorable business," the "only sport that can't be fixed, perhaps the only fair contest left in America."

Those quotations are drawn not from a debate in the New Mexico legislature but from a novel, "Cockfighter," by Charles Willeford. Published as a paperback original in 1962, reissued in a revised hardcover edition in 1972, adapted a couple of years later for the movies, the novel has had a cult following for four decades, not just among aficionados of cockfighting but among the lamentably small number of readers who know and appreciate the work of one of our most skilled, interesting, accomplished and productive writers of what the literary establishment insists on pigeonholing as "genre" fiction.

I first read "Cockfighter" in 1974. That year I assumed the book editorship of the Miami Herald. I was the first full-time staffer to hold that job, and I had to start pretty much from scratch. My only asset showed up one day in the form of a portly, amiable, soft-spoken man of about 50, richly mustachioed, who presented himself at my desk and introduced himself as Charles Willeford, the Herald's reviewer of mysteries and crime novels. I liked him immediately and told him I wanted him to stick with that assignment. We talked for a while, in the course of which he said he'd published a number of novels himself, one of which was called "Cockfighter."

I got a copy and read it straight through. I was astonished: This guy was good. He wasn't just another hack book reviewer and small-time college professor but a real writer who had, it turned out, already published about a dozen other novels. I'd come to Miami with the usual stereotypical preconception that it was a cultural wasteland, yet here was a writer right in the heart of the city who deserved comparison with the competition on the state's Gulf Coast -- John D. MacDonald -- and who, as I learned during my five years in Miami, was a man of culture, wit and conviviality.

Chas., as he signed himself, had lived a life as amazing as anything in his fiction. Born in 1919, he was orphaned while a boy and struck out on his own when his grandmother fell on hard times, a story he tells in "I Was Looking for a Street" (1988). Faking his age, he enlisted in the Air Corps at 16, was posted to the Philippines -- see "Something About a Soldier" (1986) -- quit that and got himself into the Army's 11th Cavalry. In World War II he was a tank commander with the 3rd Army, where he served with courage and distinction, winning a chestful of medals.

He stayed in the service until he reached the 20-year mark, retiring as a master sergeant, and then struck out in any direction that appealed to him. He studied art in France and Peru, painted, trained horses, worked as a radio announcer, boxed . . . and pursued the interest in writing he'd developed as a boy. He wrote a lot of poetry (it wasn't his strong suit) and began to turn the violence, cruelty and psychopathic behavior he'd witnessed on the battlefield and elsewhere into fiction. His first novel, "High Priest of California," was published as a Royal Giant paperback in 1953, and "Pick-Up" appeared the next year. In time he found his way to Miami (he said, with characteristic wry understatement, that "the crime rate -- the highest in the nation -- provides a writer with an exciting environment") and started teaching English at Miami-Dade Community College and the University of Miami.

Charlie was a heavy smoker, and eventually that did him in. He died in 1988, by which time a measure of success had come to him. He'd published at least a dozen more books (several posthumous volumes have appeared as well), one of which, "Miami Blues" (1984), began a four-book series featuring the Miami cop Hoke Moseley. A movie adaptation of "Miami Blues" appeared in 1990, and various compilations of Charlie's fiction and nonfiction have been published. About eight of his books remain in print, but they're hard to find.

All of which is to say that he's still around, but on the periphery of our literary consciousness. Since that had been the case just about all his life, and since his inclination was toward self-deprecation rather than self-pity, he no doubt would take it in stride, probably with a laugh at his own expense, but it's a real pity that more readers don't know him and his work. This is especially true at a time when the line between "literary" and "popular" fiction is beginning to blur, in the minds of serious readers if not those of most literary critics. Willeford was a skilled storyteller and had a decidedly tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the violence, treachery and just plain craziness he so often described, but he was also a man of wisdom and depth who regarded the human comedy with a clinical yet appreciative and sympathetic eye. He wasn't quite as much a social and cultural critic as those two other Grade-A Florida novelists, MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen, but his eye for fraud, sham, venality and hypocrisy was every bit as keen as theirs.

The three books I'd recommend as introduction to his work are "Cockfighter," "The Burnt Orange Heresy" (1971) and "Miami Blues." The last revolves around Freddy Frenger, "a blithe psychopath from California" who finds his way to Miami and manages to get himself, not to mention a lot of other people, into a whole lot of trouble; the novel is at once horrifying and hilarious, and shows Willeford at the prime of his maturity. "The Burnt Orange Heresy" is a tour de force in which he employs his deep knowledge of art to tell the story of an ambitious young critic whose single-minded careerism leads him to fraud, theft and murder; the understanding of human psychology revealed herein is remarkable, worthy of many other writers whose literary reputations are far greater.

But "Cockfighter" is what's on the table today. Between 1974 and 2004, it's lost none of its pop, its sizzle, its humor or its intelligence. It is the story of a smart guy in his early thirties named Frank Mansfield whose one great passion is cockfighting. It takes place in Florida (where Frank has a lease on a farm at Ocala) and Georgia (where the climactic cockfight tournament is held). More than 2 1/2 years before, Frank came within a whisker of winning the "little silver coin, not quite as large as a Kennedy half-dollar" that is awarded to the Southern Conference Tournament's Cockfighter of the Year, the "ultimate achievement in one of the toughest sports in the world," but his "personal vanity and big mouth" did him in. Then and there he "made my self-imposed vow of silence," which he determined to keep "until I was awarded that little silver medal."

Everyone else thinks there's something physically or emotionally wrong with him. He becomes known as "silent Frank," responding to others with gestures, writing out questions or instructions in longhand, making such a good show of it that everyone assumes he simply cannot speak. To his surprise and irritation, he finds himself "on the receiving end of personal confidences and long sad stories." He says:

"The man who is unable to talk back is at the mercy of these people. He is like an inexperienced priest who listens tolerantly to the first simple confessions of impure thoughts, and then listens with increasing horror as the sins mount, one outdoing the other until he is shocked into dumbness. And, of course, the sinner takes advantage of a man's credulousness, loading ever greater sins upon him to see how far he can really go now that he has found a trapped listener who is unable to stop him. My ears had been battered by the outpourings of troubles, tribulations, aspirations and the affairs of broken hearts for two years and seven months. Only by being rude enough to leave the scene had I evaded some of my confessors."

A few of these are women but most are men, the tough men of the cockfighting circuit. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote in his well-known essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," in the cock ring "it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men." The double-entendre is self-explanatory, and "the fact that they are masculine symbols par excellence is about as indubitable . . . as the fact that water runs downhill." Geertz's "The Interpretation of Cultures," in which that essay appears, was published in 1973, long after Willeford had finished the first version of "Cockfighter," but the novelist underscores the anthropologist's point: These are men at war.

It is war with its own rules and code of honor. "A handshake by two cockfighters is as binding as a sworn statement witnessed by a notary public," Frank says. Over and over in the course of the novel, cockfighters are rewarded for honorable behavior and punished for cheating or otherwise fudging the rules. The long history of the sport is repeatedly invoked, as are the masculine virtues associated with it. To say that Willeford portrays his cockfighters as medieval knights gallant is no exaggeration.

Which is also to say that he is sympathetic to the sport in which they are engaged as well as to them. This isn't the place, and I haven't the space, to debate the morality of cockfighting. Suffice it to say that Willeford describes its elaborate rituals with care and affection, in the process revealing a knowledge of cockfighting that can only have come from experience. The best way to read "Cockfighter" is the same as the best way to read Tom Lea's fine novel about bullfighting, "The Brave Bulls": Set aside your objections to blood sport (which I share) and savor the novelist's artistry and acuity.

The movie version of "Cockfighter," it must be added, is a lovely piece of work. With a screenplay by Willeford, directed by Monte Hellman with Warren Oates as Frank Mansfield, it evokes cockfighting's back-country universe with sensitivity and clarity. Oates gives what is possibly the best performance of his interesting career, and Richard B. Shull is terrific as his partner Omar Baradinsky, but to my eyes the real star is the man who plays Ed Middleton, the elderly referee. That actor is Charles Ray Willeford, just as he was when first I met him. As his friend and fellow novelist Barry Gifford wrote in The Post's Book World a dozen years ago, this is Charlie "the way he really was . . . his big red face gleaming, humor and meaning in every line, full of soul." A wonderful writer, a great man.

"Cockfighter" is available in "Charles Willeford Omnibus" (Oldcastle Books paperback, $18.27) and in used bookstores.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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