Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Front Runner

The Front Runner, a 1974 novel from Patricia Nell Warren is "most celebrated gay love story ever" so it's a wonder I haven't read it until now. Not least because I'm a long distance runner!

I find the novel both completely outdated and yet in many ways current. Chiefly, it deals with the romantic relationship between 40 year old coach Harlan Brown and his Olympic-quality distance runner, Billy Sive. Even today that is provocative and to me, frankly, yuck. They also get "married" - still today, provocative. Today we still see massive homophobia in the sports world, even though it's no longer, as portrayed in the book, getting fired or facing threats, boycotts, and violence.

The Front Runner is dated in its portrayal of homosexuality - in Harlan Brown's repeated insistence on their masculinity, in his outright distaste for women (strange, as he was written by a woman), and often the sexual passages "they soaped each other's genitals" were cringe-worthy. And the talk of how good a dancer Billy was, gyrating his hips and wooing the "foxes" with his moves, to me rang false as having known hundreds of distance runners - not one of them can dance!

But the ultimate stamp of antiquity is its climax. An out gay male athlete can win the 5,000 meter in the Montreal Olympics in a world-record time, but (*SPOILER ALERT*) as he pulls away in the 10,000 meter - also at world record pace - he crashes to the ground in the final sprint, shot dead in the head in what we'd now term a hate crime.

In classic literature and film, the gay man must always DIE. I'm not saying the ending wasn't emotionally affecting, that its truth didn't blow open the minds of those who read it upon its release, or that it doesn't deserve the praise it gets from all those whose lives it changed. That's it's value in context, and for that value alone The Front Runner remains a winner.


GuyDads said...

Here just a little more interesting context. The book was published in 1974 and it tells the coaches story from 74 to 1978. Much of the story is a projection into the future. Gay marriage as a political issue is not on the radar in the US until the last 1990s. Unfortunately it is not just in literature and film that the gay hero dies. In 1978, Harvey Milk is shot dead. (BTW, he also liked younger guys too.) The book was also the first contemporary gay novel to make the NYT best seller list.

Jesse Archer said...

Thanks GuyDads,
I agree, definitely projected into the future with marriage. The novel didn't even make it out to be a political issue, just something a loving couple would do... as it should be.

Tony said...

A little late to the party here, but I loved that story, it's shortcomings notwithstanding. Not long ago I even picked up a first edition on Alibris. It was probably one of the first gay novels I ever read. When I read it back in the 70's, my high school and college running days were not that far behind me, so the gritty track team details, the famous distance runners and big-time college track programs of the day mentioned evoked a poignant feeling of nostalgia that still affects me whenever I re-read it. (We used metal track spikes back then!! )