I had no idea what to expect going into this novel other than the basic ideas of what the novel was about and the time period of the setting, but I am so glad I read it. It has such an iconic place in the LGBT literature compendium and even holds a place in Hollywood legend in that it has been rumored to be turned into a film (and the rights have changed hands many times) since the early 80s.
The first thing I do have to say is that this book is a product of its time and it is definitely dated, but what was shocking to me as I read it was how little rights for LGBT individuals changed up until about five-to-ten years ago. And as such it had most of the archetypes of LGBT literature and it didn’t bother me as much as I knew its history and I fell in love with the characters and the story itself. As with most books of this time period, the book provided a great guide to the LGBT underground in NYC and even took a trip to Fire Island. I can easily imagine some young closeted, or freshly out, LGBT individuals reading this book and heading to the big city to find themselves.
This book is one instance where the story over shadows the writing. I don’t remember the writing being particularly beautiful and there is definitely nothing that stands out about her word choice, but the story sticks with me. The characters, specifically Harlan and Billy, are so haunting in their reality and their passions. Whereas many authors would use their word choice and description to get this across, Warren used the story and as it slowly moved forward you realized the connection. There was so much more not said that was more important than what was said in the book.
I mentioned the archetypes above and she had them all for that time period: coming out, self acceptance/rejection, sleeping around, seedy nightlife, guerrilla activism and an unhappy ending (sort of) among others. However, I appreciated that even though all of these were included Warren was able to write a story with emotion and tug at my heartstrings at multiple occasions. Her ability to build tension between two characters was amazing and really made the story what it was.
Even though I knew most of what was coming, Warren does use foreshadowing a bit too much, I’m not going to lie, I cried reading this. I was on the T (tube/metro/subway) here in Boston and I got to the climax of the story and I cried first out of happiness and then within 20 pages out of shock and sadness. I then devoured the last 30-40 pages and although I felt mollified I still felt like there was a hole in me.
Recommendation: So many people should read this book, everyone really. Warren takes the LGBT issues of the 1970s and puts them on an international stage, The Olympics. And not only does she does this in such a human way she creates characters that worm their way into your consciousness and all you can do is think about them and wonder if they’re okay or if they will be okay. I don’t think I will read the follow-up novels as I don’t want the story to move past the point at which it ends in this novel.
Opening Line: “I can be precise about the day it began.”
Closing Line: “He knows that it is going to take everything he has to stay up in front, to run free.” (Whited out.)
Additional Quotes from The Front Runner
“As a veteran of secretiveness and agonizing, I was fascinated by the kid’s openness and directness. I was shortly to learn that Billy didn’t volunteer personal information unasked. But if you asked him something straight out, he would give you the cold answer, without dramatics and without hesitation, no matter how personal it was.” (54)
“Love is when you fry the other person’s bacon even if you’re a vegetarian.” (197)