Poet and storywriter Manley's (Within the Ribbons, not reviewed) debut novel--a rural father-son coming-of-ager--could easily have fallen prey to the maudlin and familiar, but it rises soaringly above both, thanks to its author's wonderful timing, eye, ear--and heart. ``The boy,'' as he's namelessly known, is almost 13, and his father, a raiser of fighting birds, has not only given his son the prize cock of the batch but has offered him his first chance to ``handle'' it in an actual cockfight. Patches in the book, without question, labor self-consciously to pronounce and maintain its themes (``That's how it seemed to him, sometimes. The cocks were pure''), but these fall away to insignificance as the reader begins to trust Manley's ongoing skills for what's real, accurate, and observed. The boy's monstrously crude, trailer-trash father, Jake Cantrell, is as close to an escapee from the Snopes archives as you can get, and yet the perfect capturing both of his speech (`` `That's you,' his daddy said. `Just because he's walking around don't mean he ain't dead' '') and actions, right down to the way he gets money out of his pants pocket, makes him anything but an imitation. The same goes for the boy's mother, the Bible-believing Lily, whose grief is boundless at losing her son--now that he's entering puberty--to the crude and ``manly'' indoctrinations of Jake. If Lily is at risk too of tumbling into melodrama, she's saved by the same perfect details and quiet rigors of Manley's art that lift all his characters from the page--including Lily's alcoholic brother Homer--and do the same for the story's events, not only the cockfight but the ghastly later results of it, which few could present with Manley's clean and understated power. Akin, say, to A River Runs Through It--a minor masterpiece, however well-worn the genre, that stands on its own two legs. Strong and fine.