Harlan's Race - Patricia Nell Warren
(sequel to The Front Runner)
Itís intimidating beginning a sequel to book that has made such an impression on you. The Front Runner was ďtheĒ gay novel of the 70s, never out of print since its first publication, an international best seller read by gays and straights alike. It defined gay issues for a generation. Then two decades later this sequel was published.† I was almost wary of reading this sequel. I neednít have worried. I actually enjoyed this novel more. I had kept an emotional detachment from the Front Runner because I had an inkling how traumatic it would be. That book was a mix of running, gay rights issues, and a love story, and on reflection, the most memorable parts were the first two. The love between Harlan and Billy was never given long enough to flourish. It was cut down, a child in its infancy.
This sequel is the adults kicking back. Itís a much more emotionally fulfilling novel.
Harlan has survived the events of the Front Runner, but deadly enemies circle him and his surviving extended family: an obsessed, murderous stalker, and the shadowy presence of a new disease that is cutting a swathe through his friends.
Running is still a strong theme in the book, but itís not competitive now, itís running for survival, running to escape the past, running to try and catch the elusive ghosts that drive Harlan.
Most of the book is set on the gorgeous east coast islands of New England, the storms a dramatic backdrop to the emotional intensity of the plot.
Harlan describes himself as a serial monogamist, which is good description. Heís loyal to his lovers but heís a very physical lover, still driven by his passions. Warren doesnít attempt to make her gay men politically correct, which is wonderfully refreshing. The lovers in this novel are Vietnam vets, navy seals, marines, and terrorists. They are hard and bitter. The sex is far more explicit, passionate, awe-inspiringly written. Itís forced out by the power of the emotions, dark, dangerous, healing, scary in its intensity.
The new theme in this book is the insidious presence of AIDS. Itís fascinating to see the way Warren weaves it into the plot, a few colds and sniffles becoming more serious, old friends dying, rumours, food for the homophobic right. The novel spans twenty years and Harlan is telling his story from the hindsight of the 90s. In a scene early on in the book, he travels back to Fire Island, where so much of his life took place, and heís shocked by the devastation caused by a hurricane earlier that year. The place that he knewóone of Atlantic storms, passionate sex and friendsóis gone, and in its place is a Hiroshima-like place of ghosts and decay.
Warren doesnít do happy ever after. However, this novel takes you along on Harlanís run and by the end, like him, youíre strong enough to survive whatever she throws at you.† Take your piece of glass stone and throw it into the ocean for all the brave, wonderful men in this book who just couldnít run fast enough.
Nell Warren was under pressure to write a sequel to Front Runner after its phenomenal success, and always intended to follow-up with a book about Billyís son. But his story couldnít then be told for no one couldíve predicted the future.† Eventually this novel appeared to bridge the gap.† As a sequel itís near perfect.† An example of how to give readers what they want while saying something new, telling a story that needs to be told in its own right.
Front Runner was beautiful romance, like a vision of perfect gay love.† The sequel is a darker book, reflecting changing times, 70s innocence & idealism, with sexual freedom and gay lib, hits the harsh reality of the materialistic 80s, the double whammy of AIDS and the inexorable rise of the anti-gay religious right. Iím a child of the 70s, so when Harlan laments what was lost Iím there with him, yearning for what vanished without our knowing it was at risk.† The era of peace & love gave way to self-centred greed and hate.
Harlanís heart was broken in Montrťal.† He fights now to survive:† life is an unending race to a far-off finish line:† Billy was/is/always will be the front runner, Harlan the kicker snapping at his heels.† Harlanís challenge is to get back into the race, to live the rest of his life, not mourn Billy, his heart forever frozen.
It's 1978 and Doc Jacobson notices many of his gay patients show signs of a mysterious disease. Angel is the boy rescued from the streets by Harlanís writer friend Steve Goodnight, so damaged he canít bear to be touched.† Angel is sick, physically as well as emotionally. The boy adds a new word to his limited vocabulary.† Hurt. Steveís been sharing needles with Angel, for vitamin injections as heís† not feeling well either. Well you can guess where this plotline goes.† Doesnít make it any easier to bear.† Far more deadly in its reach than any sniper with a rifle AIDS haunts this book like the Mask of the Red Death.
The shadow of Billyís assassination hangs over coach Harlan, the threat of another bullet aimed at him.† He lives with constant paranoia, a mirror to our contemporary fear of terrorism.† I read the book immediately after Tim & Pete, the dark tale of gay anarchists striking back against the extreme right.† Already dying of AIDS they had nothing to lose.† Nell Warren presents a different vision in a book thatís more human and humane. Harlan endures losing Billy and personal freedom of movement yet retains faith in justice, holding to his dream that gay men could walk the streets without fear.† If we surrender precious freedoms taken for granted, we give the sniper or terrorist more power over us than they really have.†† A timely warning.
Iím not giving away much.† But the story touches on love, with erotic moments thatíll melt your bones.† Vincent, Billyís old running mate, has always had a thing for Harlan, a mutual attraction.† With Billy gone maybe itís time for them to explore their relationship.† Vince was always the wild one, hot-headed and passionate.† Has Billyís death pushed him over the edge?
The two bodyguards we met very briefly in the first book, Chino and Harry, play a bigger role in the sequel.† Chino gravitates to Harlan.† The beautiful fucked up Viet Nam vet is a highlight in a book full of good things.†
And of course thereís Billyís son John, called Falcon by Harlan.† Heís with Betsy, his mother, understandably afraid for her boy. Harlanís life is under threat from a stalker called LEV who appears to be connected to events in Montrťal.†
I was torn.† Desperate to find out what happens, end relentless tension that had me hardly able to breathe. Totally absorbed in the story. While at the same time gut-lurchingly scared to read on.† The shock of the earlier book always in mind.† Like Harlan we carry Billy in our hearts.
I was reluctant to read the novel because Iíd loved Front Runner so much. Sequels often disappoint.† Not this one.†
I reached such a fever pitch of emotion I fought back tears one day out walking, thinking about the characters.† Went straight onto Dream Boy looking for relief, but that only intensified the ache.† So I wallowed in mindless gay porn for a few days, unable to bear any more pain.
Itís essential reading if you want to understand that period of gay history from post Stonewall gay lib through the decimation of AIDS.† This review canít do the book justice.† You simply have to read it.† No excuses.†
Publisher: Wildcat Press, ISBN: 0964109905
Buy Harlan's Race from Amazon here