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the outsiders

17 january 2012

The one thing everybody knows about The Outsiders is that it was written by a high-school student from her own experience. "I didn't just write The Outsiders, I lived it," says S.E. Hinton. But even if its action and settings reflect her youth, the opposite is just as true: she didn't just live it, she wrote it. And when an author writes a book, that book participates in a world defined by other books, with a logic and even an ethos as much literary as lived.

The status of The Outsiders as gritty first-hand testimony to class antagonisms in 1960s Tulsa has made it required reading (and, at times, required banning) since it appeared in 1967. But the book succeeds just as much because of its story arc and its generic decorum. It's a tragedy that gives hope that further tragedies can be avoided: the definition of a Young Adult novel, perhaps, and the model for many that followed.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders uses a first-person narrator. Ponyboy Curtis at times sounds like Holden Caulfield, despite growing up one decade, half a continent, and a social gulf away. Ponyboy is by turns arrogant and self-effacing, in a way that corresponds to real-life adolescent bravado and insecurity. He keeps telling the reader he's a liar, and he lies in the course of the story; but somehow, as with Holden, he comes across as a fairly reliable narrator. (Unlike everyone around them, we are overhearing their deepest secrets, it seems, and there would be as little reason to lie to a reader as to one's diary.)

Like Holden, Ponyboy is an avid reader, even though his grades in school are poor; like Holden, he has a knack for writing compositions. (The famous twist at the end of The Outsiders, where it's revealed that the novel itself is one of those compositions, marks it as a degree more meta-literary than even The Catcher in the Rye, and a degree less straight-from-the-streets.) And he's an avid moviegoer. Despite his love for the movies (the novel begins with him leaving a Paul Newman picture), Ponyboy nowhere admits to having seen West Side Story, the most dominant textual influence on The Outsiders.

When the Socs and the "greasers" head towards the climactic rumble in The Outsiders, you can practically hear the strains of "Tonight" welling up in the background. There's no Romeo-and-Juliet romance in The Outsiders, but there is a cross-class friendship between Ponyboy and the meditative Soc girl Cherry that stands in for that doomed romance. And unlike West Side Story (or Romeo and Juliet, for that matter), we are left with a lot of hope. Both sides will learn from the mistakes that have cost them a life on either side, and our heroes will go on to better futures.

If The Outsiders has dated (and what book 45 years old hasn't?), it's in being lily-white. Tulsa's complicated racial history is bracketed away in Hinton's novel. We don't see African-Americans at all, and we hear only briefly that there might be Native Americans in Oklahoma. Everyone seems to be of uniformly white heritage, no matter what their socio-economic status. The lack of characters of color in The Outsiders is perhaps realistic enough (even social tensions could be segregated in mid-20th-century America), perhaps a necessary simplification so that the central story could be told. Or perhaps the whole book is an allegory of race. In any event, it's a simple good story, vitiated only slightly by a tendency to tell, not show, its character relationships. It deserves its archetypal place in the history of the Young Adult novel.

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. 1967. New York: Speak [Penguin], 2006.