Revisiting “THE FRONT RUNNER”—a gay classic
“The Front Runner” by Patricia Nell Warren is one of the books that changed my life as I am sure it did to so many others. It was probably the first gay love story to be openly sold and the fact that it was about the love relationship between a coach and a member of the team he worked with made it that much more exciting. I had already left America and was living in Israel when I got a package from a friend I had not heard from since 1967. The year was 1974 and a friend felt that this was something I had to read and read I did. I was home for a weekend of army duty and instead of spending time with friends, I snuggled up with a blanket and a cup of coffee and began to read. I remember when I finished the book I was a wreck. I was crying and thought to myself, “WOW”. Interestingly enough, I read the book again yesterday, as I am wont to do at least once a year, and it had the same effect. Almost 30 years later, the book still moves me. If you are not a reader or if you are, and you never sit down to enjoy a book, do yourself a favor and read “The Front Runner”.
All these years later, it still is, as the New York Times said in 1974, ‘the most moving, monumental love story ever written about gay life”. I still wonder how a woman, Patricia Nell Warren, was able to tell the story of two men so beautifully and accurately. But tell it she does and we are all so much richer because of her. She handles emotions, aspirations and the gay way of life with sweetness and poignancy and erudition. When Harlan Brown, the coach, looks at the runner, Billy Sive’s gorgeous blue-gray eyes, the reader can feel the exchange of feeling. As we follow Harlan and Billy’s relationship, we forge a bond with the characters—from the beginning when they were both in denial about their feelings to the blossoming of the romance to the terrible and horrible end, they become part of us. The story tugs at us—it will not let us forget it. Likewise the book shouts out against the hatred and the degradation of the homosexual in American life. When Harlan is forced to battle the Olympic committee so that Billy can run in the Olympics, we get a taste of homophobia that makes us cringe.
This is a book for everyone who feels that he is aware and enlightened about the state of the world. It teaches that love is good and above all else, it is not important who the lovers are or what their sex is. This is a ground breaking book that should continue to break ground for generations to come as the youngsters who are growing up today discover it. It serves to remind us that love is simply that, love. Even though the story belongs to the world of the 70s, the ideas and values presented belong to history.
Most of us who grew up in the sixties remember where we were when Kennedy was assassinated and I would venture to say that we remember, as vividly, when we read “The Front Runner” for the first time. It is a revelation to everyone, not just gays. The fact that a love relationship between two masculine guys, the story of the love between two world class athletes could actually (even though we all knew people like that) make the esteemed New York Times bestseller list shows the power of the novel.
I am sure that Patricia Nell Warren has had many love letters written to her as the result of the book. I want to add mine again—thesis my third such review and I am now the owner of a much dog leafed signed copy. But I must say that no piece of writing has ever had such an influence on me. I wept openly when I read it and I still weep with every rereading. It takes a special kind of writer to do that to me and as much as I do read, I must confess it has not happened many times. The climax of the book has continuously left me weak but that says something for the power of the written word. This is not just a book to read butut is one to treasure and to read again and again and again.