The success of Patricia Nell Warren’s novel “The Front Runner” is not due to being daring or pornographic or “first” of its kind. This book is ABOUT something and it’s not just sexuality -- it’s about running in competition. Having been a runner, she really knows about running from the inside, plus all the technical information, the political forces, and the personal motivations, and then weaves all that into a proper novel with real depth. She handles sex beautifully (literally so) though there’s a bit of a distance in being a lesbian woman writing about gay closeted men. Sometimes there’s a very strong whiff of the BBC’s “To Serve Them All My Days,” which is to say idealization of the college context. And Billy is “Buddhist pure” which is to say his dharma is whole and irreproachable. (Sort of like an idealized American Indian, but that’s a different book.)
Nevertheless, the assortment of characters ring true and touch most of the bases. How does this celibate straight old lady know? In 1974, the year this book was published, I was an animal control officer in Portland, OR, who drove through Laurelhurst Park now and then, patrolling for loose dogs, at the request of Rodger Larson, then the foreman of the park and now known as the author of “What I Know Now.” http://www.amazon.com/What-Know-Now-Roger-Larson/dp/0805048693. PPD also patrolled -- for gays in the rhododendrons. A few blocks away was a coffee house run by feminists, who all declared they were lesbian. Their loose dogs interfered with the neighbors, so at my request they had a community meeting and established a dog hitching post out front.
Having established all that, let me assure you that this novel is a solid page turner for any reader. Even after reading the end out-of-order to reduce the pressure a bit, I was truly swept up in it. In fact (this is a spoiler) even after knowing Billy would die and guessing how, I found myself crying. The iconic broken glasses on the cover worked. I have NEVER before read a poetic account of cremation (and yes, at animal control we cremated and I witnessed so I know it’s accurate). Maybe what happens after that is kind of a straight idea (marriage and babies) but you want there to be a sequel, don’t you? Gays I know are not so rigidly nailed into stereotyped roles as most people seem to think. Different circumstances bring up different sides of personality.
And different issues. One is that of the propriety of a sexual/romantic relationship between a father-aged man and a son-aged youth. This is outweighed by “love” -- a true love that the reader believes -- and the real father on hand. Mothers get short shrift here, though the Trannie surrogates come off pretty well. Still, there are always questions because our purported sexual ideal is equality. I said “ideal.” I can’t think of any truly equal sexual relationship in reality or fiction. One person is always dependent, one person is always the accommodator, even if they trade places now and then. It seems to be reality and only governed by gender in some cultures. It can be about roles or personalities.
Warren barely hints at the extreme damage that can be done to a youngster by cruelly voracious males. “The Angel Gabriel” is zombified, able to live only with the help of heroin, but he is still ethereally beautiful. After working with Cinematheque, I believe in him. There ARE boys like this. Book titles and authors are mentioned, but I didn’t know which, if any, were real. Patricia Warren would have to tell you. (I googled “The Angel Gabriel” and got too many references of every kind to sort out which might be the book character she meant.) She is wise to quote the Bible gracefully, pre-emptively.
Billy is beautiful, but he has a mind and uses it. His rule is “no sex without love” which he says is a Buddhist rule. Few of any persuasion don’t break that rule. But such incorruptible people don’t lend themselves to plot development except as martyrs. The killing of athletes as revenge on nations had just happened in 1972, a holocaust echo aimed at Israel. Stigma, stigma, it is the labeling of the Other as someone who can be killed with impunity in spite of their innocence. Surely that’s the Angel Satan. Making Billy’s dad a civil rights defender is another excellent plot decision that brings in an historical and powerful force for discussion.
Nothing feels rigged in this novel. Nothing hits you over the head, and yet when it was published it was a major game-changing book. No one thought it would sell, or so they said. But it sold big. Even so, a movie version is slow coming. There is something in the commodifying, conservative, CEO world that prevents the reality of life getting through to them. They continue to insist on the same old formulas, even as Warren demonstrated that a gay woman can write about gay men, that the universals of life will always be saleable, and that hearts are moved by any love that is sincere. In the end she formed her own publishing company, Wildcat, and carries on, running “balls out.”
Warren is unexpectedly connected to the Western art world I used to know: awards from the Cowboy Hall of Fame, speaking at the Autry. The gates that the prissy try to hold shut (without any real idea what they’re shutting out -- unless they think they’re holding the closet door shut) have been simply lifted off their hinges by “The Front Runner.” It hasn’t become a movie yet, but without it’s success as a book “Brokeback Mountain” would never have been made.
Warren is writing about “respectable” achieving gay men whose love is, in her word, “chaste.” This isn’t the whole picture by any means but at least it opens the subject and perhaps in time the courage will exist to look at the whole picture. By that I don’t mean all sorts of gays -- I mean all sorts of people everywhere, regardless of the degree to which they are nonconforming or even wicked. Like Patricia Nell Warren, I insist on their right to be themselves.