Skip to main content

Retro Reading: The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren


If you're of a "certain age" you may remember the rumor that Paul Newman had bought the rights to this controversial (at the time) novel and was going to turn it into a movie.

It's a good thing a movie was never made.

While reading this book I didn't know if it was a biography, sports story, autobiography or a love story. For me, it was a hot mess.

As the book begins, Harlan Brown tells us that he met Billy Sive on December 10, 1974 and asks Brown to coach him. Billy and his friends, Vince Matti and Jacques LaFont are expelled from the University of Oregon, where it's discovered that the three are gay.

They head east to Prescott College because Billy's father, John, recommends that Brown coach them in track and John had known of the reason behind Brown's firing at Penn State six years earlier.

Immediately upon meeting, Brown begins to develop feelings for Billy (as does Billy) but neither act on those feelings at first.

The three boys have dreams of going to the 1976 Olympics and Brown whips them into shape along with the controversy associated with them. Everyone knows that they're gay and they prove themselves first in Europe and then again in the States.

Eventually, romance blossoms between Brown and Billy and this in itself causes controversy since Billy is a rising star and it gets out that the two have even married.

Billy makes it to the Olympics and that's pretty much the entire story.

Scroll to Continue

For at least 99.5% of the book, it's like reading a very long sports column or an autobiography of Harlan. Plus, Harlan is an egotistical narcissist.

While the book starts off with Brown meeting the boys, he has an interesting backstory of getting married, having two kids and when the "scandal" at Penn State unfolds, a divorce. We're never really told about the pain that he went through, but, following the divorce, he moves to New York and due to his physique, he becomes a "masseuse" charging $200 per session.

After getting the job at Prescott College (his employer knows of the scandal) we don't know how he felt about anything. Did he ever have other feelings for his students? How did he handle them if he did? We don't know.

Once the boys arrive, he becomes obsessed with Billy and his whole world tends to revolve around him. He starts to live his failed quest for the Olympics through Billy and after the boys graduate, Prescott College becomes more progressive and students are lining up to get in.

The secondary characters have much better stories, but they're never explored because the entire book revolves around Harlan's narcissism and pushing Billy to Olympic gold.

Ironically, the book does hold up in modern times with the same prejudices of the past.

This was a book that I've always wanted to read and had always heard about and it could have been a lot better. I think when Brown's narcissism is pointed out within the first few pages, I lost any hope in the book.

I mean, how can you care about a main character who looks negatively upon other people? Usually, you can overlook it in a secondary character, but unfortunately, you can't here.

Throughout the book, you get an idea of how it's going to end but it was still a little shocking and again, Harlan uses his narcissism to his advantage.

If this had been turned into a movie, I don't know how the story would have turned out, but for now, I'm glad that I knocked this off of reading bucket list.

Related Articles