The Mark of a Man by Max Collier (Midwood Books, 1963)
It’s always a joy to sit down and read a “sleaze” novel and discover a gem of literature. Max Collier’s The Mark of a Man is just that (reprinted in 1966 as Cathy Came First, a dumb title).
I have no idea who Max Collier is — probably a pen name, but I cannot find any information on him. If anyone out there knows, please tell me on this blog.
Collier wrote a hanful of books for Midwood, and one for Newstand, Sherri. He may have written more under other names. In his introduction to Lawrence’s Block’s Cinderella Sims (aka $20 Lust from Nightstand), Ed Gorman writes:
I read a lot of Midwood and Beacon and Nightstand novels […] I quickly came to realize that some of the writers were much better than others. Max Collier, for example, wrote some of the most perverse books I’ve ever read. As I remember them, he frequently paired up his bitter hunchbacked heroes with heiresses […] Orrie Hitt sometimes got too perverse for my tastes but usually supplied a kind of second-rate James T. Farrell-like blue collar take on the standard “sexy” plots.
The Mark of a Man is a coming-of-age, sexual-awakening story of 17-year old Paul, son of Polish immigrants, in an unnamed town in America where there is a mill and shabby streets. Paul runs with a gang — they roll drunks, steal car parts, and beat people up for kicks. Paul has a spark to better himself, though.
He gets a job as a telegram messenger. The first chapter opens with him delivering a message to an attractive older woman but it’s a ruse. Her husband is there. He wants to watch Paul make love to her. Paul gives in, and as he has sex with the woman, she holds her husband’s hand.
This is all strange for virgin Paul. Who are these weird people? Why did they want that? He goes back to find out. The woman is alone. She says she loves her husband but he is unable to make love to her “like a man” so they do these things…
It’s a powerul chapter: both sexy and sad and strange.
Then comes Cathy, the town nymphomaniac, a girl who likes to invite a group of boys up when her mom is gone and have sex with them all as they watch each other. Paul observes this and doesn’t understand this girl — why does she do this?
Paul is an ideal romantic — he believes in love, marriage, kids, normalcy, and he’s surrounded by freaks.
He next meets Kit, a 24-year-old bohemian scholar and artist. Her father is also a bohemian and they hang around a group of odd artist, writers, painters, philosophers, who all believe in free love and free will and impulse.
Paul falls in love with Kit and wants to marry her. She says she will live with him, but because of her parents’ awful divorce, she does not believe in marriage. She tries to get Paul to accept her bohemian lifestyle and ideas, but he doesn’t understand them.
He decides to quit school and get a job in the mill, where his father has broken his back for 25 years. Kit hates the working class element and sys she will break up with him if he does. She wants Paul to finish school, go to college, “because you have so much potential.” He’s stubborn: he thinks he can work for a short time, save money, and they can leave the town and be married.
His parents aren’t happy, either. They want him to have a better life than a mere mill-worker.
At the mill, Paul befriens Walt, a happy-go-lucky guy who lives for ork, booze and sex. They have fun. Paul takes Kit to a dance hall and she has fun but still finds the working class envirnment detestable.
We know tragedy is coming: someone will die at the mill, the love between Paul and Kit will wane, and Paul will come full circle in his education and get the hell out of Dodge…
The book reads somewhat autobiographically; sex scenes aside, this novel has suffered by being a Midwood book and packaged as sleave, even with the cool Paul Rader cover. This book could have been published by a mainstream house and found a better audience.
So: who the hell is Max Collier?
I will discuss more of his books later…