The Front Runner
First edition front cover
|Author||Patricia Nell Warren|
|Cover artist||Bill Tinker|
|Publisher||William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York (First edition)|
|Followed by||Harlan's Race (1994)|
The Front Runner is a 1974 novel by Patricia Nell Warren. The book, considered by some as a classic example of LGBT literature of the period, is a love story exploring issues relating to homosexuals in American sports.
The novel is:
Dedicated to all the athletes who have fought for human rights in sports, and to the young gay runner I met at a party, who gave me the idea for this book.
Although the title refers to another character, The Front Runner is the story of Harlan Brown, the track coach at fictitious Prescott College, a new, small, progressive, experimental private liberal arts college sixty miles from New York City.[note 1]
"The Front Runner" novel takes place in the 1970s, in a time when the U.S. is exploding with change. Ex-Marine Harlan Brown, 39, is a hardshell conservative and coaches track at a small obscure college. Brown has given up his dream of coaching Olympic athletes and buried himself there because he's gay and in the closet. His fear of exposure is the reason why he had left a more prestigious job at Penn State. Coaching big-time athletes might bring attention to his private life and his secret.
A bombshell is dropped when he has the chance to coach distance runner Billy Sive, 22. Billy is talented, with Olympic potential, but he's destroying himself with incorrect training. He's also gay and his plans to "come out" are unknown to Harlan. Brown reluctantly agrees to coach Sive. But as he argues about the type of training with his protege, he's horrified to find they are falling in love with each other. As rumors about a relationship between the two men start spreading, the moralistic elements in the sports world make it clear that they'll stop at nothing to keep Sive and his coach from representing America at the Olympic Games.
The story begins in late 1974 and ends in early 1978, with occasional flashbacks giving information about Brown's past. When the story begins, Brown is thirty-nine years old, an ex-Marine, a graduate of Villanova University (where he both ran and coached track), and a rigidly closeted homosexual. Six years earlier he was forced to leave an important head coaching position at Penn State University because of untrue accusations of sexual misconduct from a male student on his track team.
Although Brown had been sexually attracted only to men all his life, he had suppressed that attraction, married a girl he impregnated while in college, and lived a wholly straight life, with only occasional furtive, traumatic excursions into the gay underground of pre-Stonewall New York City. The student whose accusations drove him from Penn State was himself secretly gay, made sexual advances toward Brown, and then turned on Brown when those sexual advances were rejected. The episode also ended Brown's unhappy marriage; his ex-wife and two adolescent sons appear only briefly in flashback.
Although the reason for his leaving Penn State was not widely publicized, the rumors in the track world made it impossible for him to find work in that field. He tried unsuccessfully to find other work he was qualified for; finally he moved to Greenwich Village and supported himself for two years as a high-priced hustler. He was very successful at hustling because he was - by his own account - very good looking, in perfect physical condition, and extremely well-endowed sexually. But his heart was not in it; he longed to return to the track.
When Joe Prescott, the founder and president of Prescott College, needed a new athletic director, he managed to find Brown in Manhattan and offered him the job, which he accepted. He immediately stopped hustling, returned with determination to the closet, and threw all his energy into coaching; at the college, only Joe Prescott knew the truth about his sexual orientation and his past.
The story opens in December 1974; Prescott tells Brown that three star runners, who have been expelled in their senior year from the elite track program at the University of Oregon because they are gay, want to transfer to Prescott and train with Brown. Although Brown is wary because of the Penn State experience, he is eager to work with such talented runners, so he agrees.
All three new runners - Vince Matti, Jacques LaFont, and Billy Sive - are extremely attractive and sorely test Brown's straight act; but Vince and Jacques are more or less a couple, and Billy is the one he falls for. He manages to suppress his attraction for a few anguished months, but he and Billy soon become lovers, and after the boys graduate and take teaching positions at Prescott, Billy moves in with him.
The difficult, drawn-out process of their coming out as a couple (and Harlan's as an individual) in the intensely homophobic world of amateur athletics takes up most of the book, throughout which the sport - and particularly Billy's determination to qualify for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal - plays as large a part as the characters' homosexuality.
Harlan and Billy do eventually come out fully as a gay couple, and Billy overcomes practically insurmountable opposition and hostility to run in the Olympics. He wins the gold medal in the 10,000 meter race and is within meters of winning the 5000 meter race as well when an anti-gay assassin shoots him in the head and kills him.
Harlan is devastated, but fortunately he and Billy had stored samples in a sperm bank a few months earlier; their close lesbian friend Betsy Heden offers to bear Billy's child, so hope and a new life emerge from the tragedy.
The story does not “end” with what happened to Billy. Harlan’s story in the book continues on after that. He has spent most of his life wishing he could let himself love someone. Finally he had the courage to do that and suddenly that love is torn away from him in the most horrendous way – on live TV in front of millions of people.
Becoming “human” brings Harlan to one more challenge – letting himself feel grief for the first time in his life. So what does Harlan do with his grief? Does he give up? Does he regroup, take that hill like the Marine that he still is? Does he decide to go on having a life? A life that mysteriously and wonderfully still embraces the memory and spirit of the person he loved?
That decision is the final drama that unfolds in The Front Runner, not Billy’s death on the track in Montreal. “The Front Runner” is actually the story of Harlan’s life – including his own abortive career as a runner, and how, after Billy’s death, he finally has his own victory.
The New York Times called The Front Runner "the most moving, monumental love story ever written about gay life." It was the first book of contemporary gay fiction to reach the New York Times Best Seller List, and as of 2006 more than ten million copies had been sold. It had been translated into at least nine languages, including Japanese, German, French, Danish, Swedish and Dutch, Italian; it was the best selling gay novel in Spain and the first gay novel ever published in Latvia.
Soon after its publication, The Front Runner became a subject of interest for adaptation as a motion picture. At various times in the following four decades - beginning with Paul Newman in 1975 - a series of major producers and directors, including Frank Perry, Arthur Allan Seidelman, and screenwriter Jeremy Larner for Paul Newman, were involved directly or indirectly in producing such an adaptation. None of those efforts resulted in a motion picture.
Also in 2013, the entertainment trade publication Deadline Hollywood (deadlinehollywood.com) did a story update on the film.
Warren completed Harlan's Race, a sequel to The Front Runner, in 1994. A third book, Billy's Boy, (1997) also continues elements of the story introduced in The Front Runner. In 2013, Warren stated that she was writing a fourth and final novel in the series.
The Front Runner inspired the creation of an LGBT running club in San Francisco soon after its publication in 1974. The organization quickly grew to include approximately 100 affiliated clubs throughout the world.
- The nearest community is said to be Sayville, which is the correct distance and would locate the college on Long Island. However, the direction to New York City is consistently said to be "down" ("I jumped into my Vega and drove like a madman down to Manhattan," p 210), and NYC is not typically considered "down" from Long Island, which lies east and south of Manhattan. Also, the trips to Fire Island are treated as if they are major excursions, not ordinary events; Sayville is the embarking point for some of the primary ferries to Fire Island, so going there for someone living near Sayville would be almost like going to the corner store. Other elements - significant hills, heavy snow at Thanksgiving, etc. - also imply an Upstate New York location rather than Long Island, which has a more temperate climate than the upstate exurbs of NYC; and Sayville is on the South Shore, which gets even less snow than the rest of the island. See the Sayville and Long Island articles for further information.
- Warren, Patricia Nell. "Changes in the wind.(lesbian author describes her motivation for writing 'The Front Runner')(Column)." The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine). LPI Media. 1998. Retrieved November 07, 2010 from HighBeam Research: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-20979891.html
- Warren, Patricia Nell, and Tyler St Mark. The Front Runner: The Novel. Wildcat International. 2006. URL:http://thefrontrunner.com/thenovel.html. Accessed: 2010-11-08. (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/5u5cevcjc)
- Zeigler Jr., Cyd. Still A Front Runner. Outsports.com. 2002. URL:http://www.outsports.com/difference/pnw.htm. Accessed: 2010-11-08. (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/5u5baFhA3)
- Warren, Patricia Nell. Gay Books As Films. A&U Magazine. 2001-01-23. URL:http://www.alternet.org/story/10377/gay_books_as_films?page=entire. Accessed: 2010-11-07. (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/5u4uyBLiE)
- Warren, Patricia Nell, and Tyler St Mark. The Front Runner: The Film. Wildcat International. 2006. URL:http://thefrontrunner.com/thefilm.html. Accessed: 2010-11-08. (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/5u4xdFhqS)
- International FrontRunners. Who We Are. 2010. URL:http://www.frontrunners.org/about/index.php. Accessed: 2010-11-08. (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/5u5d9cfSo)