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[148] The Front Runner – Patricia Nell Warren

“In those very first winter days, he stirred up all the old feelings, to a pitch of intensity that I’d never felt before. He was not merely physically attractive, but an appealing human being as well. I was that lonely mature man, but I was also like an adolescent seething with longing. For the first time in my life, I was deeply in love.” [42]

Cheesy but significant, The Front Runner, which subtly downplays sexual exoticism and focuses on the outrage and ultimate degradation of the homosexual in American society, is a love story in which the emotions, fear, aspirations and the way of gay people are recounted with poignancy and conviction. It is a claim, a shout-out for civil rights. Set against an intriguing background of touring and training for the 1976 Olympic Games, the novel pulls readers along at a front-runner’s pace to a grinding, shocking peak. It hinges one of the most defended issues in gender politics–the defense of masculinity against an athlete who is an admitted homosexual.

After a marriage that concluded on the unhappiest term, and a scandal brought on by an infatuated student that led to his resignation as a track coach from Penn State, Harlan Brown resorts into a solitude that risks an emotional death. But he harbors a secret—a stigma really—that he carefully safeguards and clings on to the hope that this human stain will dissolve over time. When he accepts the job as the head coach at Prescott four years later, no sooner is he convinced of the quiet death of his futile fantasies than Billy Sive, one of the three gay runners whom Oregon expelled on account of inappropriate behavior and whom Prescott sanctions, comes and turns his world upside down. Stuck to his hands-off rule regarding his team, no matter how Billy stirs up his feelings to an unprecedented intensity, he knows he doesn’t dare lay a hand on him.

So begins the story of a relationship that captures beautifully and accurately the mature gay psyche. Warren handles the development of the plot with such literary adroitness that I’m once reminded that some of the most perceptive and sensitive fictional account men are under the pen of women. We follow the relationship through its denial stage, mostly on Harlan’s behalf, as he has yet come to terms with the fear that has fettered his whole life, to its blossoming splendor. The slowness with which the inter-generational lovers loosen up their self-control and abandon themselves to love is so nuanced that they are rendered so real. Harlan’s dismay at any reason why he has to live his whole life without having loved a single human being must has hit a sore spot in many of us. His gradual relaxation illuminates the intensity of this deep-rooted fear of offending precisely the maleness that they love in each other. Then comes the sexual jealousy that roots in the fear of losing Billy to men who make heavy passes at him. But the most invincible is the the politics and media that threaten to ruin an athlete’s career.

The continuous battle with the reactionary AAU Olympic committee, which consistently hassles Billy with insidious schemes and antigay agenda that will disqualify him to run, only forges in them a stubbornness that wins Billy many allies from among his fellow athletes. The compelling thing about the novel is that while it’s a product of its time, published after the Stonewall riot, it continues to speak the reckless truth about politics that oppresses the gays at present. How much does an athlete, a gay athlete, or just a gay person have to do before he/she is respected and let alone? Since when is an athlete’s private life any of media’s business, let alone Harlan and Billy have never announced their formalizing of the relationship to the press. Every step of the way they have been on the defensive and saying as little as possible. If he is on the podium of homosexual politics as he is accused, it is because the media and the committee have put him there against his will. It’s everyone else but he who is having hysterics. What these people who play God and moral guardian don’t understand—and this psyche has unfortunately forged a huge flaw in American society— is that when love sparkles between two people, regardless of their gender and orientation and race, there is nothing immoral about it.

“It seemed to me that I had lived through several lifetimes of suffering before I met him, and several lifetimes of love in those twnety-one months. I would not be able to love anyone like that again.” [301]

7 Responses

  1. “What these people who play God and moral guardian don’t understand—and this psyche has unfortunately forged a huge flaw in American society— is that when love sparkles between two people, regardless of their gender and orientation and race, there is nothing immoral about it.”

    How very true. I often wonder what God would say to those people who espouse such hatred.

  2. Lesley:
    I don’t think God would have any attitude about one’s sexuality. If he has anything to say, it would be: “Where and how have you demonstrated the love that I demonstrated for you?”

  3. […] often looked upon as a more upbeat and funnier literary clone to the post-Stonewall classics The Front Runner (reviewed earlier), is even more provocative and engrossing a read that satirizes the subtle and […]

  4. hey Matt… just found your blog through exlibris… nice reivew of TFR. I remember crying my eyes out at the end… Patricia Nell Warren really knows how to bring characters alive…

    anyhow, nice site, looking forward to browsing more of your reviews.

    Eric
    http://ericmueller.org
    and
    http://www.flashlightworthybooks.com
    “Books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime” 🙂

  5. […] The Front Runner, Patricia Nell Warren. This is the classic story of a gay runner who fought his way to Olympics and […]

  6. […] Literature … on [151] The Dreyfus Affair …GLBT Literature … on [148] The Front Runner –…GLBT Literature … on [34] Latter Days – C. […]

  7. […] scrupulously for nutrition and workout tips. The two sports-related books I read were fiction: The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren and The Dreyfus Affair by Peter Lefcourt. By coincidence they both involve […]

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