Aug 30 2012

The Outsiders

S. E. HintonLast night, I finished reading S. E. Hinton’s (pictured left) 1967 novel “The Outsiders”. I’d read online that it was an old favorite for lots of people and I remember people reading it in high school (not my class), so I decided to give it a go. I have plenty of other unfinished books lying around but wanted something easy to fill those few quiet moments left to me. We got it from the library a couple weeks ago. My wife read it quickly. I walked by the end-table where she’d left it for more than a week before picking it up. A few short evenings later and the book was done. It’s not very long and an easy read, even for someone that reads at a pre-21st century glacial pace. The Outsiders is young adult fiction written in the 60s by an Oklahoman teenager. It was an instant hit when published and has seen a couple of film adaptations. The following review contains spoilers aplenty. Read on at your spoilery peril.

The book is narrated by a 14 year old greaser named Ponyboy, who lives with his brothers Darry and Sodapop. Their parents died in a car crash before the story begins and the eldest brother Darry provides for the family. The boys are part of a small gang of Greasers, juvenile delinquents identifiable by greased hair and denim jeans. The greasers in the book are in a constant state of conflict with the Socs (socials), which are privileged kids from the west side of town. That backdrop offers the stage for a coming-of-age story, where Ponyboy learns about friendship, family, responsibility, loss, death, bravery, and perhaps most importantly that there’s often more to other people than meets the eye. Though the book can be rather brutal, I must admit that I thought the ending was heading in a different direction than it did. When it didn’t pan out the way I was expecting, I was a bit disappointed. As the end of the book drew nearer however, I knew that the author wouldn’t be able to deliver. It had all the hallmarks of an unfolding tragedy, more than what was already delivered, and I was ready for the final grim revelation, but it didn’t come. Instead the character comes to his senses and you’re left to believe that he rises above his predicament. Lame? Well, maybe. Perhaps it’s not fair to criticize the path that the author chose for her story; it’s her story, but I was expecting Ponyboy to be permanently damaged by the head-trauma he’d suffered. After the rumble, his cognitive skills seemed to be declining faster than Charlie Gordon’s in Flowers for Algernon (published a year earlier). I was expecting a story about a boy that finally figures things out, then loses everything. That’s not what happens here.

To be fair, the book did handle other events very well. The deaths of Ponyboy’s friends and his dealings with Randy (a Soc) were poignant.  Ponyboy’s ongoing revelations and those of his friends were also handled well. Perhaps his biggest and most important discovery was coming to understand his oldest brother, Darry. Throughout the book, I felt like Hinton was borrowing from Catcher in the Rye, but writing her story with a more likable protagonist. Both stories are told in retrospect, both deal with a teenage boy with mistaken preconceptions, and both include a poem that the narrator likes but doesn’t understand (i.e., Burns:  “Comin’ Through the Rye” vs. Frost: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”). The similarities taper from there, as Catcher is a much deeper and more challenging read. Perhaps I just prefer characters with more flaws (not that the Curtis family isn’t plenty dysfunctional)? While both Catcher and Outsiders were  introspective, Outsiders also tried to tackle the clash between sub-cultures, a story that each generation retells with different titles and uniforms. In summary, The Outsiders is a simple but good read. A story that was controversial in 1967 is now rather tame, though many of the coming-of-age elements still ring true 40+ years later.

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…”

3.5 out of 5