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,"
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,"
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.
to March 30, 1998 Contents Page