Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book/ My History with This Book

            Like most people, I first became aware of The Outsiders through the movie.
            Around 13 or 14 I was a big fan of these cheesy 1950s teenage rebel movies.  I loved West Side Story  and Rebel Without a Cause . 
            One day, The Outsiders was on TV.  I had never heard of it before, but the TV guide described it as a movie about street gangs in the 1960s.  That sounded up my alley, so I sat down to watch it.
            I couldn’t make it through much more than 10 minutes.  None of the characters seemed at all interesting, the movie didn’t seem to have much of a plot, and I was just bored.  I turned the movie off.
            But The Outsiders was rerun on cable TV a lot back in the 90s, and so I would continue to see bits and snippets of it on TV from time to time.
            At some point, I finally realized the movie had an all-star cast.  (I was a bit sheltered as a kid, and a bit oblivious to popular culture, so it took me a while to realize this.)  But once I finally realized that the movie had Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillion, Emilio Estevez, and Ralph Macchio (the Karate Kid)  all before they were famous, then that alone was reason enough to keep me sitting through the entire movie.
            At the end of the movie, the closing credits revealed that the movie had been based on off a book, something else I hadn’t known.

            If left to my own devices, I don’t think I would have ever bothered to track down this book and read it.  But I am currently teaching English in Cambodia  at a school where this book was assigned reading for my students.  And because they had to read it, I had to read it. 
            And so here I am giving my review.

The Review
            If you’ve already seen the movie, then you already know the plot.  And it turns out that the movie is a very close adaptation of the book, so there’s not really much new in the book.  So right there that makes the book a bit of a boring read for those of us who have already seen the movie.  (That’s not the fault of the original book, of course, but it is a sad reality in this post literate age, in which I suspect just about everybody has seen the movie.  Or is this movie not getting re-run on cable as much as it used to be?)

            Although there’s really nothing plot wise in this book that isn’t in the movie, you do get some more detailed character descriptions, and the book does get more into the head of Ponyboy (the main character and narrator). 

            What makes this book really impressive is that the author, S.E. Hinton, was just 17 when she wrote it.
            Granted, this book is not exactly Shakespeare, but it’s a lot better than anything by a 17-year old has any right to be.  (I mean, you should see the absolute dreck I was writing when I was 17).
            The book is written in the voice of its 14 year old narrator Ponyboy, who tells the story in an informal conversational style meant to imitate the way teenagers actually talk.  It is a bit cheesy at times and some of the cheesier passages had me rolling my eyes but (here’s the important thing) it’s highly readable and it flows.  Getting an easy to read simple style is something even older writers struggle with. 

            To illustrate this, I just opened the book at random.  Here’s a couple paragraphs from page 71.

            Buck Merril was Dally’s rodeo partner. He was the one who’d got Dally the job as a jockey for the Slash J. Buck raised a few quarter horses, and made most of his money on fixed races and a little bootlegging. I was under strict orders from both Darry and Soda not to get caught within ten miles of his place, which was dandy with me. I didn’t like Buck Merril. He was a tall lanky cowboy with blond hair and buckteeth. Or he used to be bucktoothed before he had the front two knocked out in a fight. He was out of it. He dug Hank Williams—how gross can you get?
            Buck answered the door when we knocked, and a roar of cheap music came with him. The clinking of glasses, loud, rough laughter and female giggles, and Hank Williams.  It scraped on my raw nerves like sand-paper.  A can of beer in one hand, Buck glared down at us. “Whatta ya want?”

            Young S.E. Hinton shows admirable discipline in focus as well.  She introduces all her main characters early on, gives each one a distinct personality, and then manages to keep the story tightly focused on her characters.

            But as impressive as The Outsiders is for a 17 year old's effort, it is clearly not adult literature.  The book lacks any subtlety, and hammers the reader over the head with any point it wants to make.  Also some of the characters I found unbelievable.

            But then, this book was never supposed to be adult literature.  It always has been marketed as young adult literature, and so it must be judged on those standards.  Which brings me to my next point: my experience teaching this book to a classroom full of young adults.

My Experience Teaching This Book

            This book is required reading for one of the advanced English classes at an English school where I am currently working at in Cambodia.  As of this writing, I have been assigned to teach that class 5 times so far, and so have had to teach this book to 5 different classrooms full of student.  The students are mostly in high school or recently graduated.

            They really love this book. 
            The students were assigned to read the first 3 chapters of the book by the 3rd week of the term (the rest of the book was due later in the term), but many of them got so into the book they couldn’t put it down and read the whole book straight off.  One student said it was the best book she had ever read.  Another girl said she really liked this book because of all the handsome boys in it.  (The narrator of this book, Ponyboy, will go on at length about how handsome the other members of his gang are, something that I thought was a bit strange, but something the girls apparently liked.)

            And this, I realized, is why this book is so often assigned in middle school English classes.  Whatever the relative literary merits of this book are, it clearly seems to be working for its target audience of young adults.  And I can’t emphasize enough you how much nicer it is for me to teach a class where the students actually like a book (as compared to what usually happens, when I have to teach a class where the students resent the book, and resent me for making them read it.).

            I had my own reservations about the quality of this book, but I just kept them to myself. It was so nice for once to actually have assigned reading that the students liked, and could get into.

           The book does not have 100% success rate.  A few of the students still don’t like it.  But that’s to be expected.  Over the years I’ve come to accept that everyone has different tastes, and there’s no such thing as a book everyone likes.    But if you can get some of the students in a classroom to really enjoy a book, then that’s the best you can hope for.

            Out of the 5 classrooms, I had just one class where a couple students strenuously objected to this book.  “We want to select another book to read,” one of the students said to me.  “This book has too much drama.”
            “It is overly melodramatic, yes I agree,” I told him.  “You’re reading it anyway.”  (It was part of the school’s set curriculum, so I wouldn’t have had the flexibility to change the book even if I had been so inclined.)

            I myself managed to get through middle school without ever reading this book, but I understand that for decades now it is one of the most frequently assigned books in junior high school (although also apparently one of the most controversial books in public schools  --LINK HERE).  In fact, in talking with my fellow American co-workers over here, I’m discovering a lot of them have had to read it in 6th or 7th grade.
            “What did you think of it?” I asked one of them.
            “I loved it,” he said.  “It really shocked me at the time.  It was the first book I ever had to read for school where teenagers actually died.  It felt like we were finally getting into heavy adult literature.”
            “It’s funny,” I told him.  “Reading it now at 34, I have the opposite reaction.  I can’t help but think how childish it is.”

            Since I’m clearly outside of the target audience for this book, and since this book seems to be working very well with its target audience, I’m not sure there’s much point in me reviewing it.  (Would there be any point to me reviewing the Twilight series?)

            But that being said, I’m going to jot down some of my own thoughts anyway.

          Apparently, the reason the author goes by her first initials S.E. is because originally the publishers were worried this book wouldn’t sell with male audiences if they knew it was written by a young girl (W).
            (Which, I hate to admit it, is probably pretty true.  We males can be jerks that way.)
            Nowadays it seems to have become one of the main selling points of the book.  The first thing the publishers tell you when you open up the book is that “S.E. Hinton wrote her first book, The Outsiders when she was just seventeen years old” (from the publishers introduction, page 1.)
            The knowledge of this I think can not help but influence the reader’s opinion.  On the one hand, it makes you a lot more forgiving of stuff.  Sure, the prose is a little purple here,” you think to yourself, “But what do you expect?  She was only 17?”
            On the other hand, I think I was also more critical of some parts of this book because I knew it was written by a 17 year old girl.  I frequently found myself rolling my eyes and thinking, “Oh, sure, isn’t that so typical of what a high school girl would think!”
            I wonder what I would have thought of this book had I not known it was written by a teenager.  If, for example, I had gone into this book thinking it was written by a 40 year old well respected male novelist, would I subconsciously have been less critical of this book?  Am I just a sexist jerk?
            Unfortunately I can’t go back in time and perform the thought experiment.  Maybe I am bringing in my own biases here, but nonetheless, as read the book I often found myself thinking that this didn’t seem like a realistic portrayal of the Greasers.  Instead this seemed like what a 17 year-old high school girl would imagine the Greasers to be like.  Below are some of the more jarring parts that hit me as a I read the book.

*          The main character is a greaser named Ponyboy.  Ponyboy? What kind of a name is that?  I mean can you get any more girly?
            And the section when he describes how his older brother Soda was in love with a horse named Mickey Mouse, and they had this special bond between horse and boy, and how Soda had cried and cried when Mickey Mouse was taken away from him?
            And well I’m on the subject, there seemed to be a lot of crying in this book.  Every crisis in the book seemed to involve several of the Greaser characters breaking down and crying for long periods of time.

*          If I had to pick the real character of the gang, it would be Dallas Winston—Dally. I used to like to draw his picture when he was in a dangerous mood, for then I could get his personality down in a few lines.  He had an elfish face, with high cheekbones and a pointed chin, small sharp teeth, and ears like a lynx. His hair was almost white it was so blond, and he didn’t like haircuts, or hair oil either, so it fell over his forehead in wisps and kicked out in the back in tufts and curled behind his ears and along the nape of his neck. His eyes were blue, blazing ice, cold with a hatred of the whole world” (page 12 and 13)
            Come on, what kind of street tough talks about how he likes to draw the picture of his fellow street tough when he was in a dangerous mood?  What kind of guy thinks like this?
            Even more strange is how Ponyboy frequently describes how handsome his brothers are.  He just can’t seem to stop talking about this.  Here’s how he describes his brother Soda.
            Soda is handsomer than anyone else I know. Not like Darry—Soda’s movie-star kind of handsome, the kind that people stop on the street to watch go by.  He’s not as tall as Darry, and he’s a little slimmer, but he has a finely drawn, sensitive face that somehow manages to be reckless and thoughtful at the same time. He’s got dark-gold hair that he combs back—long and silky and straight—and in the summer the sun bleachers it to a shining wheat-gold. His eyes are dark brown—lively, dancing recklessly laughing eyes that can be gentle and sympathetic one moment and blazing with anger the next (from page 9).
            Really, who talks about their own brother this way?
            But then Ponyboy keeps returning to the subject.  Later on page 22 he says:
            In a moment his [Soda’s] breathing was light and regular. I turned my head to look at him and in the moonlight he looked like some Greek god come to earth.  I wondered how he could stand being so handsome.

*          Another thing that struck me as a bit odd: when Johnny and Ponyboy are hiding out in the abandoned church, they kill time by reading Gone With the Wind to each other.
            We killed time by reading Gone with the Wind and playing poker. Johnny sure did like that book, although he didn’t know anything about the Civil War and even less about plantations, and I had to explain a lot of it to him.  It amazed me how Johnny could get more meaning out of some of the stuff in there than I could….He was especially stuck on the Southern gentleman—impressed with their manners and charm.
            “I bet they were cool ol’ guys,” he said, his eyes glowing, after I had read about them riding into sure death because they were gallant. “They remind me of Dally.”
            “Dally?” I said, startled. “Shoot, he ain’t got any more manners than I do. And you saw how he treated those girls the other night. Soda’s more like them Southern boys.”
(from page 92&93—although references to the gallant Southern gentleman reoccur several other times later in the book.)

            One of the major themes in this book is that Greasers aren’t just the hoodlums they appear to be, and that they can be intelligent or have a softer sensitive side.  But I’m sorry, I just can’t see two Greasers reading Gone with the Wind to each other and talking about how gallant and dashing the Southern gentleman are.  I can’t see any guys doing that under any circumstances. It’s not that guys don’t ever talk about literature or ideas, but we’re just not interested in how gallant the Southern gentleman are in Gone with the Wind.

This Book as Cultural History

            For me, speaking as a history geek, the main appeal of this book was the look it offers a look into a time and teenage culture that no longer exists.

            The book was published in 1967.  It was written by a 17 year-old high school girl who based the book on the clashes between the Greasers and the Socs that she observed in her own high school.

            For those of us born after the 1960s, and only know about the 1960s through books and movies, perhaps there’s a temptation to put too much faith in books and movies of the period, and forget that any book is limited by the mind of its author, and can’t fully encompass the whole human experience.
            I’ve already noted above some of the things in this book that struck me as a bit unrealistic.  And even at the time this book was published, some contemporary reviews took issue with the realism of this book. (One of the first reviews ever by the New York Times in 1967 [LINK HERE] seems to be saying Rich kids beating up poor kids?  Seems to me it was the other way around in my neighborhood, but whatever, still an interesting story.)

            But with that huge caveat aside, it’s still interesting to look at this book for an examination of what life was like in the past.

            The first thing to note is that, for a book published in 1967, it doesn’t feel at all like something out of the 1960s.  There’s no indications of counter culture movement, protests or civil rights.  Rather all the elements of this book feel like their straight out of a 1950s movie. 
            The Greasers are the stereotypical 1950s bad boys, with the stereotypical greased back hair.  Ponyboy claims they model their style on Elvis (who was apparently still really popular in their neighborhood) and that Greasers steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while (p. 3) While the Socs are stereotypical 1950s preppies. 

            The book apparently takes place in 1965, a couple years before it was published.  (The date is never explicitly stated in the book, but other reviews of this book place it in 1965.)  And I’m given to understand that the cultural change didn’t happen until the late 60s, which would explain why this book feels like it takes place in the 1960s.

            (Actually this recent Salon Article Everything you Know About the 1960s is Wrong: Think it was a decade of sex, protest and psychedelics? Nope. As late as 1964, the decade looked like the '50s
probably also goes a long way to explaining this.)

            Still, I’m given to understand that by 1965 the culture was at least beginning to change—the Civil Rights movement had been ongoing for about a decade, race riots were hitting the Northern cities, and the anti-Vietnam War movement was beginning.
            I was somewhat surprised that none of these things were on the mind of S.E. Hinton’s teenagers.  Instead they were all obsessed with this ridiculous battle between the Greasers and the Socs.  (Which Hinton describes not so much as organized gang fighting, but just as a class antagonism between rich kids and poor kids that frequently broke out into violence.)
            Apparently this was the all consuming thing in 1965, at least in Hinton’s town.  And yet it has been completely left out of my history education.
            Were things really as bad as she described it? 
            And then what ended up happening to the Greaser Socs rivalry?  Hinton describes the hatred as being so intense, you can easily imagine it continuing through the rest of the decade, and yet you never hear about this kind of stuff in the late 60s, do you?  Did the fighting just continue on in the background of the late 60s for several more years, or did the Anti-War movement and anti-establishmentism of the late 1960s suddenly redirect everyone’s focus to a new enemy?
            Anyone who is old enough to remember the 1960s, I would love your comments on this.  What’s the deal? 

            [Actually some of these questions might be answered in S.E. Hinton’s next book That Was Then, This is Now, which I’ve not read but which takes place a few years later, and apparently, according to Wikipedia (W) deals with the changes that counter culture and the hippies have brought. Apparently the all consuming antagonism between Greasers and Socs seems to have disappeared by the 1971.]

            The Socs are repeatedly described as rich kids who grew up having everything, but then as a consequence of having everything they get bored with their lives, and have to seek out trouble to feel alive.
            This portrayal feeds into the usual narrative of the baby-boomer generation—the generation that grew up having everything, and so they had to create trouble just to feel excitement.
            But as technology and better living standard have increased with every generation, wouldn’t that narrative have been just as true for every generation since then?  Wasn’t our generation every bit as spoiled and well-off, if not more so, than the baby-boomers were?
            Anyone who has any thoughts on this, as always let me know in the comments.

Other Notes:
*          The scene in which the boys visit the Dairy Queen (both in the book and in the movie) was of particular interest to my Cambodian students.
            After years of being closed off to the West, fast food companies are just now starting to enter Cambodia.  There’s no McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks or Subway just yet, but Kentucky Fried Chicken has established itself here, and Dairy Queen is just now beginning to expand inside Phnom Penh.
            Said one of my students, “I didn’t know they had Dairy Queen way back then.”

*          Speaking of the movie, the students usually vote to watch the movie at the end of the term, and I’ve had occasion now to re-watch it several times within the last half a year.
            Despite its all star cast, I am reminded of how disappointingly mediocre the movie itself is.  One would have expected better from Francis Ford Coppola.
            The fault of the movie is that it tries to stay too faithful to the book.  Much of the dialogue in the movie is taken verbatim from the book, and I think that is the movie’s biggest problem.  Unfortunately much of the dialogue in The Outsiders just isn’t believable.  It doesn’t sound like people actually talk.  It’s less noticeable on the printed page, but once it becomes spoken lines of dialogue in a movie it just sounds really wrong.

*          Just as this book seems to be targeted perfectly towards young adults, the Robert Frost poem included inside the book, Nothing Gold Can Stay  (W) is also just at the right level for this age.  It’s just at the right level where the meaning is simple yet profound.  The tightly organized style of the text is a good way to teach rhyme schemes, syllable counts, stressed/unstressed syllable patterns, and alliteration.  

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