I’m looking at The Outsiders through the lens of Catcher in the Rye because Catcher's large footprint overlaps into the Coming of Age genre and so many people are familiar with Salinger's literary classic.
The Outsiders is about two groups of feuding teenagers, Greasers and Socses (pronounced “soshes”). Greasers are from the poor side of town, the east side. The Socses are from the upscale west side. The story is narrated in first-person by a Greaser, fourteen year-old Ponyboy, an orphan who lives with two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop. There are three levels of conflict: the grudge between the two feuding factions, inter-family conflict between Ponyboy and twenty year-old Darry, and Ponyboy’s inner struggle with self identity—what and who he wants to make of himself.
At 180 pages, the book was an easy read despite the unrefined writing style, which I struggled with but readily accepted because the roughness of an untrained authorial voice sounded realistic.
I was first drawn to The Outsiders because I kept running across comments about the book in discussions concerning The Catcher in the Rye, a book that I have reread and analyzed extensively with great enthusiasm. I am a great fan of Salinger. I am also writing my own coming of age novel and find it helpful to study other works in the genre. The Outsiders has sold over thirteen million copies to Catcher’s sixty-five-plus million. The two books have similarities and differences worth examining.
Both stories are told in first-person. Holden, though unsympathetic, scattered and seemingly unreliable, is convincing and believable. Ponyboy is sympathetic and scattered but sometimes unconvincing because of the rough writing. In the beginning he kept boring me with long descriptions to set up the characters and situation. And later on he would make repetitive asides, telling instead of showing or letting it evolve naturally. Here’s an example from page 3:
“We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we’re wilder too. Not like the Socs, who jump Greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks, and get editorials in the paper for being a public disgrace one day and an asset to society the next. Greasers are almost like hoods; we steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while. I don’t mean I do things like that. Darry would kill me if I got into trouble with the police. Since Mom and Dad were killed in an auto wreck, the three of us get to stay together.” (The passage goes on for most of a page.)
I know Holden does the same thing, but his voice clicks from the very first word. Listen to Ponyboy’s opening line: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house I only had two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” The sentence was expressed in reverse order. It's a subtlety but it threw me off. It should have read: “When I stepped from the darkness of the movie house out into the bright sunlight… .”
Holden’s opening line reads: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, … .” Smooth. The opening sentence is the most important sentence in a book. It better be smooth.
It’s not fair to compare the writing of a kid with that of a seasoned master, but it illustrates what I’m trying to get across—writing that flows is more digestible and keeps the reader's attention.
In both novels, the authenticity of the narrator's voice is the most critical factor. In first-person, the reader is locked inside the narrator’s head. But this is where the similarity ends. Holden comes across as privileged, arrogant and whiney, an unsympathetic character, whereas Ponyboy is at the opposite end of the socio-economic scale and quickly earns our sympathy and interest, starting with the fact that, along with his brothers, he’s a recent orphan. Also, in the opening pages he get’s attacked by a gang and is rescued by his two brothers and four other members of the Greasers’ gang, Steve, Two-bit, Dally and Johnny “Jonnycake” Cade. The reader is drawn in by the loyalty of the boys to a member in trouble.
Other sympathetic characters include: Cherry, a cheerleader and a Socs leader’s girlfiriend; Randy, a Socs who leaves his gang; Mr. Syme, Ponyboy’s English teacher; and Marcia, a friend of Cherry’s.
Hinton spends a distracting amount of time describing her characters’ physical appearance. Salinger describes his characters briefly, with laser precision and only when necessary.
A major weakness of Outsiders is the ensemble of villains that are flat, not sufficiently rendered to make the reader feel Ponyboy’s fear of them. The Socs are pretty much faceless except for Randy, who turns out to be a pretty good guy.
A major difference between the two books is that Hinton stays with this core cast of characters for the duration of the novel, whereas Salinger takes Holden through a series of mini-dramas with a succession of characters and locations, exposing the reader to a broad spectrum of Holden’s life.
I had trouble relating to some of the characters in Outsiders. They didn’t seem real, where as all the characters in Catcher did.
Neither book pays a lot of attention to setting. Salinger handles setting methodically, with surgical precision. Hinton’s treatment is more haphazard. There’s too much in some places and none in others. Although research indicates the novel is based on Tulsa, Oklahoma, the author tells us only that the location is a city in the Southwestern United States. Ninety percent of the novel takes place on the east side of town, Greaser territory, with the rest occurring, after a short train ride, near Windrixville during a weeklong hideout in an abandoned church on a hill.
Catcher covers forty-eight hours in the mid 1940s, whereas Outsider has an approximately two-week duration in 1967.
Catcher is virtually plotless. The reader is kept off balance by not knowing what’s coming next but readers are so invested in Holden that they’re willing to go along.
Outsiders moves along rapidly with few surprises. The plot feels predictable and I don’t feel much of a threat from the Socses. The plot doesn’t grab me, but I read along because I’m hooked on the sympathetic main character, Ponyboy.
An outstanding feature of Outsiders is the way the Greasers stick together as a surrogate family, sharing chores and looking out for one another in a bond of love and respect when functional parents aren't around to guide them. The primacy of sibling affection is a major theme, if not the premise, in both books.
The book is an amazing achievement for such a young author.
Here's a Studio 360 interview with her: http://www.studio360.org/2012/may/04/american-icons-outsiders/
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