The Front Runner - Patricia Nell Warren (author of Fancy Dancer)

Ladymol's review:

I approach this review with trepidation. This book had such an impact that I can’t really do it justice. I didn’t enjoy it as much as As Meat Loves Salt, or the Dakota Series, which if you are regular readers of the reviews you will know I think are just amazing, but it had as much impact as those and a much wider remit than either of them.

This is really a front-runner of its own: a groundbreaking novel, which defined the gay struggle for its generation. It became an international bestseller, and was probably the only gay novel most of its straight readers had ever attempted.

There are really three main threads to the novel—a love story, running, and gay rights—and I’m going to cover each separately, not that they are uneven in the book, they’re not, they’re blended seamlessly, but I need to try to put the book into some kind of context.

The author was, apparently, a long-distance runner herself, and the details of training and track events in the States are spot on. The book glories the human male body, the runner being seen as the epitome of the physical ideal. At one point, Billy Sive, the runner is called a living anatomy lesson. Running, of course, is not just a physical sport; it relies on great self-discipline mentally and commits the emotions like almost no other sport. All of these aspects drive the book, keeping it a story or raw male drive and energy, despite the other themes, the gay themes, which could have impeded this. I think the author was very clever here. She took a traditionally male environment and kept her two lovers, Harlan and Billy, very focused on the masculine. Like a race, the novel punches along, drawing you with it until your emotions are built up like an athlete. When the end comes, it leaves you drained as if you’d completed the distance with them.

The love story between Billy the runner and Harlan his coach is quite special. I defy anyone, however homophobic they might be, to read this story and not be convinced that the relationship between them is as valid as any heterosexual one. Not only does she handle the gay angle so well, but she chooses to have the traditional relationship between an older “teacher/coach” and very much younger impressionable “student” used as the vehicle to show the true power of love. Harlan was falsely accused of molesting a former student and had to resign from his prestigious coaching job at another school. His wife divorced him, taking his two young sons and demanding a punitive settlement. Penniless, unable to earn his living, Harlan turns to hustling in the wild, gay world of New York. Being an ex-marine, and very fit due to his running, he quickly gets into the S&M scene. When a philanthropic educator offers him a chance to coach a new team at a new school, Harlan leaps at the chance to leave this dreadful period of his life behind him. He coaches, and he subjugates his desires, not easy as he’s surrounded all day every day by the physical ideal of the young male body in his running squad. One day, his mentor comes to him with an odd request: to allow three runners who have been kicked out of their own school to join his squad.

Harlan interviews the boys and discovers they were kicked out of school for being gay. It’s the last thing he wants—to rake up his past, to be involved with any gay issues that will disturb his fragile equanimity.  He takes them though, Vince, Jacques and Billy. Just as Harlan has come to accept that he will never know true love, it runs into his life in the perfect physical and mental form of Billy, his Olympic hopeful.

Billy is the son of a gay activist lawyer. He was ten when he discovered that his stepmother was his father’s transvestite lover. He’s totally open and comfortable about being gay and he gradually wears Harlan’s resistance down, forcing him to forgo his vow never to become involved with one of his squad.

The love story is passionate, quite explicit (for its time, the 70s, its very explicit), and very, very masculine. At one point, Harlan and Billy go through a marriage ceremony, something I particularly loath in gay novels, but the author handles it superbly. These are two people making a commitment to each other, and you are utterly convinced as you read it.

The third strand of the book, the gay rights themes colour both the previous two: the running and the love story. It is integral to the plot to the extent that at points I wondered whether the author was writing a gay rights polemic that had a love story, or a love story set amongst the emerging gay rights of the 70s. It’s a close call. If she’d made Harlan or Billy one tiny bit less interesting or believable, I think it would have tipped too far to the side of being an essay on gay rights, but each event she describes affects and hurts these wonderful human beings she has created, so their story always wins out over the other.

I own up to the fact that I was completely ignorant of the homophobia that existed in America in the 70s. This is the era of Stonewall and the revoking of the sodomy laws. Billy’s struggle is not just to stay at the peak of his running power, but also to actually be allowed to compete in events, once his homosexuality is known. Ironically, his relationship with Harlan causes him more harm than good, as the homophobes find that sort of love and commitment more threatening than the promiscuous, child-buggering sadists they seem to think all gay men are. There are some truly awful people in this book who display the sort of bigotry I thought had gone out in the Middle Ages.

The supporting cast of characters is rich and believable. The track events, right up the Olympics, have a truly authentic feel.

I’ve never had any interest in being an activist for any particular cause, but I’m putting on my gay pride badge and marching somewhere tonight just for the hell of it.  Buy this book. Read it and be very, very grateful that we live in the times we do.

Cerisaye's Review:

There aren’t many books as good as this, one of very few I will read again, though it won’t have quite the same impact as this first time.  It’s one of the best love stories I’ve ever read, painfully moving, uplifting, and extremely hot.  I was worried reality couldn’t match 30 years hype.  It’s the best selling gay book in America, popular internationally, and widely studied in schools/universities, many years after original publication in 1974.  Why did I take so long to find it?

I didn’t think much of the premise, young gay runner and his coach try to make it onto the American track team for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.  It was the romance angle that drew me to the story.  Yet by the end I was jumping up and down with excitement at the thrill of competitive distance running.  The writer was a runner and it shows.  Never have I read anything to explain so well what it feels like to push to extreme limits of mental and physical ability while revealing the joy that brings.  This book makes you want to take up the sport.

Harlan Brown, 38, is track coach at Prescott, small private college in New York state.  He’s an ex Marine hiding from scandal that forced him out of prestigious Penn State.  His quiet life ends when a trio of runners arrives seeking sanctuary.  They were thrown off the track team at University of Oregon by the bigoted coach because all three are gay, illegal in that state in 1974.

Harlan finds love when he’d become resigned to his lifetime fantasy of the ideal lover never becoming real.  Harlan sees Billy Sive, 22, and he’s instantly smitten:  tall and slender with long curly hair and the most beautiful blue-grey eyes the appreciative coach has ever seen on a man.  The runners  were sent to Harlan by Billy’s dad, John, a gay activist lawyer working on a challenge to punitive sodomy laws making normal life impossible for gay people.  Harlan knows the personal cost of taking on these boys, shunned by sporting authorities and fellow athletes and subject to a media witch hunt, will be high; but they have the right to run. 

Prescott is a liberal establishment at the forefront of that wind of change blowing through the 70s.  If Harlan doesn’t take them in they’ve nowhere else to go.  The promise of future gold medals, however, comes second to Harlan’s conviction that sexuality has no place in determining an athlete’s ability to run the best race he can.

Harlan is gay, and a talented runner who failed to live up to early promise.  His story and that of the young runner he falls in love with can be seen as a history of gay experience at a time of sea-change, 50s repression to 60s/70s activism and the birth of gay pride.  The gay liberation movement developed out of sweeping shifts in contemporary society associated with feminism and the battle for racial equality.  Athletics remained a bastion of prejudice and discrimination on all counts.  The focus of this story is the right of gay athletes to be treated the same as heterosexuals, to participate in sporting events and allowed to represent their country at international level, culminating in the Olympic Games.

The writer’s background as a gay woman distance runner struggling to compete at the same time as her fictional creations, imbues the novel with heartfelt and righteous indignation that’s infectious but never preachy.  If you’re straight you’ll want to march and wave banners like QAF’s Debbie. Never worthy or dull, issues arise naturally from Harlan and Billy’s experiences.  The heart and soul of the book is the stirring love story between Harlan, macho older man bearing scars of years in the closet fighting his desires, and Billy, second generation gay youth whose quiet strength and unconventional upbringing ensured calm self-acceptance that’s an example to others. 

Harlan’s voice totally convinces. A good story-teller, he builds his tale to a heart-stopping climax.  Narrative threads come together in a way you’ll never forget.  Harlan is painfully candid about himself and his love life.  Sex scenes are delightfully explicit for a mainstream best seller.  Harlan and Billy are lovers on a steep learning curve and we share deeply erotic passion and moving tenderness in scenes of beautiful intensity.  There are melting moments when a simple kiss & grope scorches the page, as when they go to a showing of cult porn classic “Song of the Loon”.  Harlan coaches Billy on the track but it’s the boy who teaches the older man how to love.  It’s not always easy.  Harlan remains troubled by sexual identity, fierce self-control and inability to trust. Though he holds out for months against his body’s longing, Harlan is hounded as a pervert who preys on innocent youth. Billy is his rock and anchor in a hostile world that doesn’t understand they want only to be left alone.

This stunning novel calls for tolerance and understanding as the basis for any society.  Interestingly Harlan has a theory about the particular vehemence of American homophobia, connected to the prevalence of male love during pioneering days, that ties in nicely with our gay Westerns.  It is one book you HAVE to read.  I’ve just acquired the sequel, and there’s another, to complete a trilogy that’s a unique gay family saga.  I’m pinning hopes on the movie version finally getting the green light 30 years after Paul Newman hoped to play Harlan.

Buy The Front Runner here from Amazon uk

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