The Front Runner

How do you review one of the best selling and most loved gay books of all time?

 Well, I suppose you start by saying that this book thoroughly deserves the millions of readers it’s had since its’ publication in 1974.

The book starts as three gay runners, kicked out of their prestigious American college because of their sexuality, turn up on the doorstep of Harlan Brown, a 39 year-old former Marine and successful athletics coach. Harlan has also been forced out of his previous college coaching position due to “gay rumours”, and these running outcasts join forces to create a formidable college track and field programme at the small university Harlan works at in New York State.

 The most dedicated of the three runners is Billy Sive, a sensitive 22-year old who uses his Buddhist faith to remain focussed and relaxed during his competitive races. Despite many reservations by Harlan, Billy and Harlan fall in love, as the coach readies his charges for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

There are many political barriers to Billy’s participation at the Olympics and much of the book is taken up dealing with these. And this is really the crux of the story, and I would imagine one of the main reasons Warren wrote the book. She was heavily involved in changing athletics policy herself, and this book is highly political particularly when it comes to showing homophobia in sport. Nothing seems to have changed, and what was written in 1974 is just as relevant today as gay sport stars are still almost unheard of. Because of this the book is just as readable now and only occasionally seems outdated.

Despite Warren’s reliance on track meets to keep the story flowing, having knowledge of the sport is not essential to enjoying this book. The love that develops between the two main characters is touching, and the myriad of supporting characters gives tremendous depth to the story. Warren also touches on other gay political issues including gay marriage and parenting rights – topics that she seems ahead of her time in discussing, or has nothing changed since the 70’s?

Throughout all of this a wonderful story occurs, leading to a truly spectacular ending. The last part of the book just races by and it’s almost impossible to put the book down towards the conclusion.

If you’ve read this book before, try it again – I first read it 12 years ago and re-reading it now have got more out of it. If you haven’t read it before you’re in for a treat. Warren’s prose is not going to win any awards, but her story is timeless.

– Neil.

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