Here’s a classic that isn’t new to me. I read it as a teenager, and though parts of it seemed unfamiliar to the adolescent world I knew, some moments and images stuck with me vividly over the next decade (Ponyboy nearly drowning with his head shoved in the fountain; Sodapop sleeping with his head in Darry’s lap; Dallas firing his gun in the air, twisting with the impact of the bullets, illuminated by a streetlight as he falls). These images and lines came back to me clearly, as I listened to the story again.
Once more it moved me, almost to tears. In just over a hundred pages, it delivers a powerful story about family, social class wars, identity and loyalty, love, what anyone wants out of life as they grow up.
All that’s impressive enough. Consider, then, that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders at sixteen. Sixteen. And S.E. stands for Susan Eloise, by the way. Yet another woman encouraged to use initials so as not to alienate boys who might think she has nothing to say relevant to them.
It’s interesting, because this book is introduced as a story of realistic teenagers, one of its kind for that reason (at least for the time it was published — 1967). It portrays a group of tough, low-class boys, but there are some striking differences between them and today’s tough teenage boys (as far as I know, anyway; I admit I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with tough teen boys).
The Greasers are quite introspective, for one thing. The fact that they’re willing to talk at all about their feelings, even under especially stressful circumstances, seems remarkable. They’re willing to describe another boy of their group (or their own brother) as handsome. And they’re very touchy-feely — more than once, they fall asleep with their head in another boy’s lap.
I read this book as a teenager myself, before I really got into non-hetero-normative fiction, but even then I recognized there was certainly something between Dallas and Johnny. Or there ought to have been. Although Ponyboy’s observation — “Johnny was the only thing that Dally loved” — is sufficient too in its painful truth, since it clearly covers every form of love. Still, I wish for a happier ending for them, one they could have had together.
However, I’ve grown up enough to recognize the bullshit in idolizing and romanticizing the “Southern gentlemen” charging into death (as portrayed in Gone with the Wind, which Johnny and Ponyboy read together) as heroes. They were slaveowners and fighting for their right to continue as such.
But the prose is gorgeous in its simplicity, and that’s what really flabbergasts me — that Hinton wasn’t even out of high school when she achieved this level of skill. I only wish I’m ever able to write so effectively, even if it takes me decades.
I pulled her to one side. “I couldn’t use this,” I said, dropping the pop bottle. “I couldn’t ever cut anyone…” I had to tell her that, because I’d seen her eyes when Two-Bit flicked out his switch.
“I know,” she said quietly, “but we’d better go with them. Ponyboy…I mean… if I see you in the hall at school or someplace and don’t say hi, well, it’s not personal or anything, but…”
“I know,” I said.
“We couldn’t let our parents see us with you all. You’re a nice boy and everything…”
“It’s okay,” I said, wishing I was dead and buried somewhere. Or at least that I had on a decent shirt.