On one hand, The Outsiders
is nothing more than weak fiction written by a hapless teenager and now consumed by millions of other, equally hapless teenagers. On the other hand, it is a seminal work of young-adult fiction. For some it is the first non-children's book they will read, or perhaps the one they remember most fondly.
How then to judge The Outsiders
? Surely not solely on its reputation, for Hinton's book has little to no capacity for subtlety, a childish storyline and uninteresting character arcs. The plot apes West Side Story
but doesn't catch what makes the Jets and Sharks tick; the Greasers and Socs are at best boring facsimiles of those gangs. The Outsiders
' juvenile prosody is kickstarted by what is arguably the worst opening sentence in recent memory:
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...
, eat your heart out.)
Yet neither can one dismiss the work entirely for these reasons. The fact remains that these lovable Robert Frost-quoting thugs have somehow woven themselves into the fabric of youth culture. "Stay gold, Ponyboy" has despite its apparent absurdity become somewhat of a catchphrase, and The Outsiders
in all its corniness has transcended the narrative of youth and has installed itself in a directory of the grand metanarrative. It is now a rite of passage: the first day of school, the first kiss, the year The Outsiders
is read, the prom night. Birth, maturation, death. (Indeed, prom night is a death in many ways. The Romantics often used the terms sighing
as euphemisms for sexual pleasure and orgasm, and so it is hardly surprising that the climax of prom night is la petite mort
itself, the sexual union. The lack of sex in The Outsiders
might be due to the author's age, although the high body count certainly makes up for it here.)
And where does this leave us with respect to The Outsiders
? Perhaps it is best viewed as a literary stepping stone of sorts. It is easy to see The Outsiders
as a logical precursor to noir/hard-boiled fiction. Likewise, the film version will introduce viewers to Francis Ford Coppela and in turn many other classic works of cinema. The fact of the matter is that humans are not born with innate literary or cineastic grammar. No child will immediately understand a Delillo novel, an Ozu film or one of Bertrand Russell's philosophical treatises. It is only by wading through introductory works that these difficult pieces become more understandable. And so, while The Outsiders
may be a not particularly skillful amalgam of Mark Twain, Jerome Robbins and Harper Lee, it certainly prefaces these and other more difficult works. As such, a two-star rating is an appropriate weighing of the these factors.
Hinton went on to write other books, none of which were as wildly successful as The Outsiders
. Perhaps it speaks to the cultural state of the day, or perhaps merely to a stroke of good luck on Hinton's part. Robert Frost called that the "running [of] a course of lucky events"—he was right in more ways than one.