I’m so pleased to welcome author Katy Moran back on the blog to talk about her favourite book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, a book way ahead of its time and the front runner for the YA market many years ago.
“As I stepped out of the darkness of the movie theater into the brightness of the road, I had two things on my mind; Paul Newman and a ride home…”
This is the first line of the first-ever true YA novel, and I know it by heart. I was one of millions of teenagers who have read this book to shreds over the past half-century. In fact, to write this review I had to buy a new copy – my original was read till it collapsed. That’s right, folks – SE Hinton was a true trailblazer. Every single YA novel we read, review and love or hate today owes a debt of gratitude to a sixteen-year-old girl in Tulsa, Olkahoma: almost fifty years ago, she felt a red-hot urge to write about teenagers as they really are, not how adults think they should be. And yes, I had no idea who Paul Newman was either, and I didn’t care. Of course, there are no mobile phones and no Internet in The Outsiders, so I wonder if teenagers now would have more cultural references to trip over than I did. It’s funny how things have changed so much more in the last fifteen years than they did in the previous thirty.
But what a gripping first line it is – cool and laconic, yet with clear traces of the vulnerability that makes Ponyboy Curtis such an interesting hero. Pony know he’s in danger the second he steps out of the cinema into the bright afternoon light: he’s a greaser, a kid from the wrong side of town, instantly recognisable to his bitter rivals on their own territory with his James Dean hairstyle and worn out jeans. The Socs have money, they listen to different music, they drive smart new mustangs, and they don’t appreciate greaser kids like Ponyboy Curtis walking alone through their territory. It’s a situation still instantly recognisable today, and you just know it’s all going to go so badly wrong.
The truth is, I was actually kind of worried about reading this book again in case I didn’t love it any more. I’ve seen the film version a couple of times, which in my opinion veers towards melodrama (the soundtrack doesn’t help), and I wondered if the book too would now seem sentimental or even silly now that I’m thirty-four and a little old and jaded. It didn’t, though – The Outsiders is exciting and emotions definitely run high, but that felt right rather than overdone. What I do owe to the film, though, is a young and very beautiful Matt Dillon playing Ponyboy’s fellow gangster Dallas Winston as what can only be described as a hot mess. Thank you for that, Francis Ford Coppola. Matt Dillon was the Robert Pattinson of my generation, except hotter and more badass. In fact, where are the truly badass heroes of the silver screen in 2013? They all seem a little clean cut nowadays. Anyway, I’m going off-topic: back to the book.
Apart from being a boy on the wrong side of town, Ponyboy has another Achilles heel – his parents have been dead for just nine months, and he and his brother Soda are allowed by the authorities to live with their older brother Darry only if they keep out of trouble. Darry has foregone a college place, working all hours to keep what’s left of his family together, and his authority frequently rankles with Ponyboy. On the East Side of town staying out of hot water isn’t a viable option, and indeed Pony walks into a whole load of trouble just moments after leaving the cinema, much to Darry’s
irritation. The Outsiders might have been published in 1967, but its themes of love and loyalty, and the bitter, feudal gang rivalry at the heart of the book will render the scene instantly familiar to teenagers now. The sheer youthful energy and life-force just burns off the page, as does Hinton’s anger at the unfairness of Ponyboy’s situation. Pony frequently mentions his family’s poverty, but it’s the throwaway remarks dropped into the narrative that really struck me returning to the novel as an adult reader. Pony shares a bed with his brother Soda, partly due to a lack of money and space, and partly because of the relentless recurring nightmares Pony has lived with since their parents died. As characters, Ponyboy and his brothers are already under unbearable pressure before we even join their story, and we reach critical mass on the first page.
It’s not till Pony, his buddy Johnny and their scary gangster friend Dallas Winston run in to some Soc girls, though, that the white-hot tension at the heart of this novel really blows up in everyone’s face, and it’s all because Dallas decides to mess with the wrong girl. Now, I’ll have to admit I was a bit worried if the portrayal of girls would annoy me when I returned to this book. I recently read a contemporary YA novel which I felt was misogynistic as a whole, rather than simply a home to misogynistic characters, so I was feeling pretty sensitive to the issue when I picked up The Outsiders.
It’s true that Pony says some pretty stupid things about those girls of his own class, but even reading the novel with critical eyes, I felt that Ponyboy’s bewilderment, ignorance and even his slight fear of these Greaser chicks was (sadly) pretty realistic for a fourteen year old boy, even if it wasn’t necessarily ideal. One of SE Hinton’s terrific strengths is writing about teenagers as they really are, not as we think they should be, and Pony is just as fallible as anyone else. This immature misogyny is part of his character, but doesn’t stop him forming that crucial bond with Cherry: they really do recongnise each other as kindred spirits. Ponyboy’s attitude towards some girls represents his own lack of understanding, and is not just a small facet of a wider dislike and distrust of girls expressed throughout the whole book in the actions and attitudes of other characters.
With that in mind, I was ready to be critical of Cherry – she’s pretty much the main female character in the book, and she occupies a perilous position throughout. Still feeling a little bruised from the aforementioned contemporary YA novel in which the girls are unable to resolve any form of conflict without the help of a guy, I was relieved about the fearless way Cherry the privileged Soc princess summarily deals with Dallas at the cinema. He has a reputation as a ruthless and violent gangster, and she really stands up to him. Cherry is tough and courageous – but only up to a point. Cherry might be happy to talk to Pony at the drive-in, but she’s the first person to admit that she’ll probably have to blank him in the corridor at school. I disliked Cherry for this in 2013 as much as I did in 1994, but it now makes me admire Hinton more as an author. YA novels can be little bit idealistic in the way those high school social barriers are magically overcome by the power of love and new understanding. The whole high school clique thing is admittedly a bit alien to me, as I don’t think it’s half so entrenched over here in the UK, or wasn’t when I was at school, but there are definitely quite a few books out there in which those boundaries are overcome with a little too much ease. Hinton tells it like it is, and right till the last minute you are kept wondering if Cherry will stand up and be counted after the explosive and deadly events that unfold.
The Outsiders was the first of its kind, and nearly fifty years later, it is still one of the very, very best YA novels you could hope to read. It’s a scorching hot and furious stream of consciousness, original and wild, and the first thing I did when I finished it all those years ago was to begin to write a story of my own. Many years later, that story became a book called Dangerous to Know. SE Hinton’s voice as an author is so real and so immediate that it made me feel like I could do it too – after all, she sounded just like one of us. Thank you, Susan Hinton. None of us would be reading or writing YA as it exists today if you hadn’t been so angry, so honest and so damn talented. All hail the queen.
Thank you Katy for a gorgeous review. You have made me want to read Outsiders too now. Katy is the amazing author of Hidden Among Us which was published in March by Walker Books.