I found my copy of The Outsiders at a used bookstore downtown, it was a slim little volume tucked away between larger books. The books were being sold for a dollar each, and I’ve never been one to resist a deal like that! So I scooped it up and added to the pile I bought that day.
I figured it was the kind of book I could read in an afternoon, a young adult novel scarcely 180 pages, a story simply told with little exaggeration. One day it rained for hours, so I curled up on my couch entered the dreary world of Ponyboy and Sodapop, wondering what I’d find.
The Outsiders was written by a 16 year old and it shows. This both is and is not a compliment. The very beginning of the book shows clumsiness and naivete in its introduction of the characters, pouring out description in the first paragraph. But it didn’t take long for me to find charm in Ponyboy as narrator, Hinton as writer. Wit, humor, humility, and a quiet intelligence make up Ponyboy’s character. His insight is an insight only a teenager could see. What I found over the course of reading was that The Outsiders could only have been written by a teenager, otherwise what we’d have was some Travolta-esque sketching of the 1960s. There are so many movies for that.
“You know what a greaser is?” Bob asked. “White trash with long hair.”
I felt the blood draining from my face. I’ve been cussed out and sworn at,
but nothing ever hit me like that did. Johnnycake made a kind of gasp and his eyes were smoldering.
“You know what a Soc is?” I said, my voice shaking with rage. “White trash with Mustangs and madras.”
The plot of The Outsiders is simple. Ponyboy lives and dies by his gang, the Greasers. They’re at war with the Socs, another gang of wealthy, affluent boys. The Greasers see themselves as the sons of tragedy, and doubt that Socs could have problems and conflicts. When Johnny, a Greaser, kills a Soc that was trying to drown Ponyboy, the two friends run away from home in an attempt to save themselves. They even save children from a burning church, being good boys at their core, but suffer consequences as a result. The story ends in true tragedy for everyone involved, but with an undercurrent of growth and acceptance.
The Outsiders, in my opinion, is famous for what it represents rather than what it is. Written in the mid 1960s, it represented a book for teenagers, addressing their issues and concerns. The Young Adult genre was in its infancy, and The Outsiders for a long time was its seminal work.
Is it a bit overrated? Yes. There are lines that have not aged well, for one. When Johnny croaks ‘Stay gold, Ponyboy’, I think of twenty-somethings today having the words tattooed on their shoulder. In reality, it’s an attempt at metaphor but just that, an attempt. Literary allusions can’t compensate for lack of depth.
Indeed, I don’t believe that The Outsiders lacks depth. I see in this book a young writer trying to tell her story, trying to capture her surroundings and blend them with the literature she knew, likely assigned readings from high school English classes. It’s never going to be highbrow literature, but I’ll remember it for its heart and earnestness. Those aren’t easy qualities to evoke, so overall, credit where credit is due.