“I didn’t mean to,” he finally blurted out, “but they were drownin’ you, and I was so scared…” He was quiet for a minute. “There sure is a lot of blood in people.”
Prior to reading this book I was only dimly aware of S.E. Hinton’s writing. I knew that she wrote young adult fiction and that her novels often had male protagonists involved in street gang life. I must confess though that was mostly due to Francis Ford Coppola having made a film of The Outsiders back in the eighties – and even that movie is not really all that well known today, except for its astonishingly prescient casting. Here’s a list of the young turks Coppola snapped up for the flick. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and Ralph Macchio (he of Karate Kid fame).
Man Tom Cruise looks crazy in that trailer.
The story is told from the perspective of Ponyboy Curties, the youngest of three brothers who recently lost their parents in a car wreck. All three boys are Greasers, belonging to a gang of kids from the wrong side of the tracks who like to drink late into the night, roll drunks for change and rip off stores on occasion. They wear their hair long and slicked back. The only implement they hold more often than a comb is a flick knife. They also are the sworn enemies of the Socs, society kids from the wealthier part of town who cruise around in expensive cars looking for lone Greasers to pound.
The two gangs fight over narrow strips of turf and spends their day plotting revenge for various slights when they’re not getting drunk, or looking for a girl.
Ponyboy is different though. He gets good grades, likes to read and is not physically as strong as his brothers Darrel and Sodapop. Those are their legal names; apparently Poppa Curtis had a sense of humour. Darrel works two jobs to try and provide for the family. Ponyboy resents how the eldest brother put pressure on him to do better in school and not stay out too late at night. Soda has dropped out and is also working. He is less scholarly that the other two Curtis brothers and has no interest in going to college. All he wants to do is marry his sweetheart and party with the other Greasers, Dallas, Two-Bit, Steve and Johnny. Little Johnny Cade is the baby of the gang. All the other Greasers look on him like a little brother and try to protect him. After getting beatings from his dad for years, Johnny took a turn for the worse when a gang of Socs left him beaten and bloody on the wasteland bordering their respective territories. Ever since Johnny has been traumatized and highly strung, retreating further and further into himself.
Ponyboy and Johnny spend most of their time together. As the two physically weaker Greasers they tend to gang up on individual Socs during fights and are less outspoken than the rest of the gang. One night at a drive in Johnny snaps when Dallas begins harassing two Socs girls. Shamed by the younger Greaser’s words, Dallas takes off, leaving the two boys with Cherry Lane and Marcia. Ponyboy discovers an unlikely friend in Cherry, the two of them quickly bonding over their frustration with the gang life they are trapped by. She tells him that he is different, he can make something of himself, that even the Socs have it rough sometimes despite coming from privilege. Greasers feel too much, they decide, whereas Socs feel nothing at all, even in the heat of a rumble.
After they offer to walk the girls home though, a gang of Socs drive past, with Cherry’s boyfriend Bob in the car. Johnny and Ponyboy find themselves targeted by the rival gang and during that one terrible night everything quickly goes very wrong.
S.E. Hinton captures Ponyboy’s voice perfectly, with his musings on class differences and his frustrations with life slowly changing as he becomes more aware of what is really happening around him. She also describes the bond between the Greasers with great sympathy, with the friends trying to give one another what family has failed to provide.
There is perhaps an overly sentimental tone to the proceedings, with Cherry an unlikely greek chorus, but the bursts of violence lend it weight. This is a sad, bittersweet take on adolescence.