Emory Report

March 30, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 26

Manley publishes debut, a
Southern coming-of-age tale

Emory professor Frank Manley's debut novel, The Cockfighter, was published recently by Coffee House Press of Minneapolis.

This Southern coming-of-age tale has at its center Sonny, the almost-13-year-old son of macho "redneck" Jake Cantrell, proprietor of the Snake Nation Cock Farm. While his mother Lily tries to hold onto what she considers to be a naive boy, his father fiercely prods him toward manhood by giving Sonny a champion rooster for an upcoming tournament. Because of Jake's recent interest in the boy and desire to mold Sonny into his own image, Lily knows the boy soon will become "his."

Sonny soon sees the rooster as the pet he always wanted and secretly names him Lion, even though gamecocks are not meant to be pets and cockfighting is not for children. "Deer and bear don't have names, and these don't either, except what God gave them, and that's enough. You call them cocks," Jake commands.

Faced with the upcoming tournament, Sonny struggles between needing to be trusted and "wanted" by his father and rebelling against Jake's demands and expectations. Sonny must make a life decision that will change him profoundly-the consequences of which will carry him into manhood.

The Cockfighter is a story of the triumph of the human spirit against overwhelming odds. A boy opposed to his domineering father draws strength from the fierceness and courage of his beloved "pet."

Manley, Candler Professor of Renaissance Literature and director of the Creative Writing Program, tells an unflinching and uplifting tale in spare, conversational language. His ear for working-class dialogue leads to subtle, yet complete, character development. Manley thinks his playwriting experience helped him. "It's hard to stand back from your own work, but I think writing plays helps me write dialogue that is real and vivid," he said. Through their thoughts and words, the reader comes to know Lily, her shiftless alcoholic brother, Homer, and, most clearly, Sonny. Jake's swaggering, sometimes belittling talk and actions paint a portrait of an uncomplicated brute. He never calls his son by name, referring to him instead as "the boy" or, worse, "you little s---."

Manley's career as poet, playwright and short story writer serve him well in The Cockfighter. There are no wasted words, and imagery is painted clearly. Women at the tournament wrapped in their homemade quilts are "gaudy as flowers" "Underneath the cages the ground was white with their droppings," he writes, describing one of Sonny's moonlit visits to Lion. "It looked as though it might have been limed, it was so bright, or, as the boy sometimes thought, an opening had appeared in the earth and the light inside was leaking out."

The Cockfighter has traveled from novella to short story to novel since its first draft a few years ago. Manley set out to write a novella but was told by publishers the work was too short for that form. He then submitted it, along with a collection of short stories, to Coffee House Press, where publisher Allan Kornblum suggested Manley flesh out the tale and create a novel. The original material took two months to write-except for the six to eight months Manley set it aside in search of an ending. Additional writing and revisions took an entire summer break.

How does one arrive at the topic of cockfighting for a novel? For Manley the inspiration came from neighbors near his North Georgia mountain home. "This is something my neighbors do, and I've gone with them," he said.

Manley said his favorite part of the writing process is creating the first draft. "You know that you probably won't be able to use 90 percent of it, but it's still good," he said. "The rest is like knitting. You have to just keep working away at it methodically." For about two and a half years Manley wrote nothing but first drafts and now has three other novels in first draft form. Coffee House Press will publish the collection of short stories he submitted to them, Among Prisoners, in winter 1999.

Manley will be reading and signing The Cockfighter at 7:30 p.m. April 13 at Barnes & Noble in Buckhead, 2900 Peachtree Road.

-Deb Hammacher

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