Fighting Mad: The Story of a Warped Soul was originally serialised in Physical Culture magazine between January and October 1922. This was the flagship publication of Bernarr Macfadden, a pioneering body builder and tireless promoter of clean living, exercise and a milk-based diet punctuated by periods of fasting. Each hefty issue of Physical Culture featured photos of perfectly developed bodies; articles with titles like ‘Getting Thin to Music’, ‘Yawning Your Way to Health’, ‘The Athletic Baby’ and ‘Milk Cured My Nerve Shock’; and advertisements for a whole range of eye-catching but no doubt totally useless products such as Dr Lawson’s Fat Reducer, Vi-Rex Violet Rays, the Health-O-Meter and the Roche Electric Hygienic Machine.
Tod Robbins (1888-1949) is today mostly remembered for the short story ‘Spurs’, which was the basis for Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film Freaks. He already had four quite different novels under his belt when Fighting Mad appeared. Mysterious Martin (1912) was about a writer whose books trigger a wave of murders; The Spirit of the Town (1912) was an allegory about the temptations of the city; The Unholy Three (1917), which was also filmed by Browning, was a darkly comic tale of three circus performers on a crime spree; and Red of Surley (1919) was a sensitive coming-of-age story about a boy growing up in a Long Island fishing village. By day, Robbins was a Long Island playboy who loved tennis and was married to a socialite who went on to win the first Miss America contest. But you wouldn’t know that from most of his writings. Robbins was attracted to dark subject matter. His works are populated by murderers and misfits who spend their lives dancing to the tune of an inexorable and implacable Fate.
Robbins had been a champion athlete in his college days, and his first published work was a spirited football song written for his college called ‘Washington and Lee Swing’ (which oddly enough went on to become a big band staple). The first instalment of Fighting Mad was accompanied by a series of photos showing him in boxing trunks and striking various muscular poses. He might therefore have seemed a perfect fit with the magazine, yet Fighting Mad was in fact a rather unlikely choice for its prize novel. Far from being a hymn to physical fitness, or a celebration of the ‘noble art’ of boxing, it is in fact, the exact opposite. It is a book about obsession and madness, fuelled by rage and, for a work which predates the advent of hardboiled crime fiction by several years, occasionally shocking in its violence. It certainly must have made for unusual reading among all the articles about exercise regimes and photos of lithe dancing girls.
Indeed, it makes such an odd fit with Macfadden’s magazine that I wonder whether it was awarded the prize on the basis of a few early chapters submitted by Robbins. It certainly begins in a manner which indicates it will be a far more conventional story than it turns out to be. When we first meet its protagonist (hero is the wrong word) and narrator, Frederick ‘Deacon’ Colgate, he is a young boy being raised by friends of his late parents. He is horrified by the sight of one of his playmates hunting chickens with a bow and arrow, and worried about what the boy’s sister will think of him.
Intuitively she sensed my weak womanly side which I strove to keep a secret from the world—my dread of inflicting suffering, or witnessing it . . .
Later, when he comes of age and receives his inheritance, he is appalled to find that it consists of properties in the New York slums, and is overcome by pity for the people who live there. He wants to do something about it.
At this point, the likely trajectory of the story seems clear. Colgate will harden up and become a real man. He will do all he can to help the poor whose lives have unexpectedly become linked to his. He will set himself against fierce obstacles, then overcome them with a mixture of brains and brawn.
Well, this being Tod Robbins, it doesn’t pan out like that.
While Robbins dabbled in ghost stories and fantasy, most of his tales deal with the horrors of the mind, and Fighting Mad is no exception. Stripped down to its basics, it is an old-fashioned tale of betrayal and revenge. It begins with Colgate being struck a fearsome blow by a man he considers his best friend, and ends with him returning that blow—with interest. During the course of the story, Colgate goes from being an idealistic young man to a brutalised and embittered husk, his connection to reality broken and nightmarish visions beckoning to him from the sky. At its conclusion, he has found some sort of closure, but the overall mood of the novel is one of desolation.
Fighting Mad has never until now been issued in book form. While it has its flaws, perhaps due to Robbins having to deliver chapters to deadline, I think it reveals rather more about him than many of his other tales. He seems to have been an unusually private man. He married four times, but tried (completely unsuccessfully, of course) to keep three of those marriages secret. It’s therefore not surprising that in most of his works he gave little of himself away. In Red of Surley, however, he dealt evocatively with childhood and the urge to be a writer. In a later novel, In the Shadow, written years after he had moved to the French Riviera and another seemingly blissful period of his life, he dealt with death and bereavement. And in Fighting Mad, we have a semblance of the young Tod Robbins, the rich, athletic college boy, having impromptu boxing matches with fellow students in his rooms. Whether he clashed with a one of them over a woman, and was betrayed as Deacon Colgate was, I don’t know, but the heartfelt nature of Fighting Mad suggests that was the case.
This volume is rounded out with the boxing-themed short story ‘For His Lady Friend’, which appeared in the November 1923 issue of Everybody’s magazine, along with an autobiographical note in which Robbins describes the pinnacle of his own brief but entertaining career as a boxer.