Archive for June, 2012

Just finished Christopher Coake‘s You Came Back – a book I didn’t want to read. There are almost no subjects I avoid reading about. If an author presents the material in a unique and compelling way, I can be curious about almost any subject. That is, unless it’s the loss of a child. As a father, this is the one subject you really never want to imagine, not through your own eyes, those of someone who’s lost a child, or those of a fictional character. Coake’s book is fiction but still I was wary.

I might not have picked up the book if I hadn’t already read Coake’s debut story collection – We’re in Trouble: Stories – and liked it so much. I’d also heard him read and met him when he interviewed for a position in the program where I was a graduate student. I liked him and his stories. And Coake knows a thing or two about grief, so I trusted him to treat the subject carefully.

I wasn’t disappointed. Using a very close third person, he planted me firmly in his protagonist’s shoes and, from the first pages, I was in for the duration. The story is driven by our compassion for the protagonist and his desire, like ours, to know, to understand what we don’t, including himself and his handling of his son’s tragic loss.

I grew up reading ghost stories (from Poe and Lovecraft to the wonderful (true) ghost stories of the Carolinas, particularly those set in the Outer Banks, to the ghost stories (the best of their work) of Stephen King and Peter Straub). I listened to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater on my transistor in bed at night (at 10:00 and long after I was supposed to be asleep) and, when I first tried to write, drafted my own (highly derivative) ghost stories. These stories stirred my imagination, left me both wondering at the possibilities and shrinking from them at the same time–always a skeptic. And Coake takes cues from this wonderful genre,but without exploiting it. His book is haunted, no question.

Coake works from real life and haunts his book with the emotional, spiritual and intellectual challenges there: loss, doubt, guilt, survival, faith/belief, and reconciliation. He employs a ghost story to get at these emotional issues in a compelling way.

I don’t want to say more. I read the book in two days and was glad for it. The book lingers in my (unsettled) heart and mind, and the more I think about it, the more I applaud what Coake has done so honestly–an unblinking look at the horrors of grief and survival.

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Hunting Island, SC – Sunrise


 I. The Low Country

A few weeks back I went adventuring in South Carolina–in and around Edisto Island and other parts of the Low Country near Charleston. I was there to visit old friends, two guys I’ve known for nearly 25 years now but rarely see, but stumbled upon what I believe will eventually make a good piece of immersive, long form nonfiction. And I want to talk a little about it as the story develops.

One, who now lives in London, was visiting family; the other lives just northwest of Charleston along the Edisto River. The Low Country is beautiful–sandy soil, palmetto trees, and Spanish moss–and is a special place for me. Much of my mother’s family is from this area and has been for over three hundred years. I visited my grandparents near here. I also spent a memorable summer on a barrier island near Beaufort, SC (aka as Pat Conroy country), where I first met these two guys.

After our brief reunion, I intend to spend some time with one of the two on the cockfighting circuit. After what I’ve seen, I want to take a closer, objective look at this (blood) sport. Emphasis on objective for I don’t want to examine the ethics behind this mostly illegal sport but simply the subculture within America, particularly here in the Southeast. I will have to wait until the fall, for after June they don’t fight the birds again until September/October due to the excessive heat here.

II. The Good Doctor

MD (aka “The Good Doctor”) is older by ten years, though when we first met he was barely out of his twenties. But I was a dumbass of twenty, and he seemed like the wise old uncle who’d seen it all. In fact, he’s a country boy who grew up on a Low Country farm. He stands 6’6″ and has arms that swing like tree limbs, long and full of hardwood. As a young man, he boxed for awhile, making a name for himself as a bare knuckle boxer. I recall one whiskey-soaked evening in which we also heard a story about boxing a bear, but like all things from MD you have to take a step back. He’ll tell you anything, mostly because that’s what you want to hear.

MD picked me up at the Charleston airport and, after offering me a cold Corona from a cooler in the back, said we needed to stop by his farm, 500 acres of sandy soil, pine forest, corn fields, and a cock farm.

III. The Cock Farm 

I knew that MD had been into cockfighting for years, but didn’t know how serious he’d become as a “cocker” – that’s right, a cocker. I’d never seen him fight a gamecock and we’d had many sessions over beers in which we argued the ethics of what some call a blood sport. But the old man had gone pro and was now into raising champion cocks on his farm, hundreds of them spread over a couple of acres, blue barrels turned upside down with a tiny doorway cut into them (shade huts for the roosters) dotting the field like a plastic stonehenge and roosters strutting as far as their tethers would let them. And the sound–my god, hundreds of crowing cocks proclaiming their territory all at once, a symphony of five notes in a never-ending loop. A concert of noise that might either drive you mad or set you smiling at nature’s harmonies.

A Handsome
Cock

MD gave me a quick tour of the farm, roosters scurrying as we walked by. I’d never seen anything like it, birds everywhere, including hens and chicks in abundance. He scooped one of the roosters off of the ground and held it before me, a handsome bird whose feathers glistened in the sun. Because these are gamecocks, the comb and wattle (the red bits on top of their head and under their beaks) have been removed as they can be detrimental in a fight. I’m not an animal guy so arm’s length was as close as I wanted to get. He insisted I hold my arm out, palm up. Reluctantly, I did. He gently placed a mean-looking bird in my hand. And there it sat, beady, bird eyes blinking away, head bouncing in anticipation of whatever the hell roosters anticipate. Bird in hand, I reached up to stroke him, and realized MD had vanished.

Cockteaser at Rooster-Rama!

He’d gone to retrieve another gamecock. He wanted to demonstrate their instinct to fight each other. If you put two roosters before each other, he said, they will fight instinctively until the other is dead. For this little sparring match, he put on the boxing gloves, orange rubbers that go over their spurs, which the birds use to hurt each other. Even with the gloves, MD explained, they would beat on each other until one was dead. They know nothing else.

MD fitted the gamecocks with boxing gloves and dropped them to the ground together. They were at each other before their feet hit the grass. The feathers around their neck, called hackle, flared for a fight, great feathered coronas around their necks. The birds put up their feet as if wielding swords. They stabbed with their beaks.They jumped and flew at each other, driving feet and beaks first, each aiming to top the other.

Admission: it was riveting watching these two beautiful animals go at each other, so intent on harming the other bird. MD didn’t let the fight last long–again, they’ll kill each other if allowed, he told me. He returned them to their tiny plots of dirt and grass and blue barrel. Once out of sight, the birds relaxed and likely forgot all about the fight.

Other cultures, he said, where cockfighting is a significant and more-accepted part of the culture, such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Thailand, at al., augment their cocks with “blades”  they fasten to the rooster’s feet to insure a bloodier fight. In North America, this practice is generally frowned upon, he said, but showed me some of the blades from Mexico and the Philippines. 

While I don’t entirely buy the rationale that cockfighting is natural–cockfights go until one is dead or gravel injured, after all, and for money (not much natural in that), it was an irresistible moment in which these beautiful creatures revealed the darker sides of animal nature, the instance heightened as over a hundred birds crowed their passion and swagger.

Next time: Here Comes the Rooster – Part II: The Silence of the Lambs