August 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Ponyboy at 55

By Robyn Annear
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“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.”

How many times must I have read that opening line during my last year of primary school? Enough that, all these years later, the familiarity of it gives me a pantomime shiver, equal parts anticipation and dread. Ponyboy, behind you!

Fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis is the narrator of the teen classic The Outsiders, first published in the US in 1967. It took four years to arrive in Australia, selling around a million copies in the meantime and commencing its career (which continues to this day) as one of America's most banned books. For all that, it lobbed into our school library without flutter or fanfare.

A grade sixer with no talent for sport, I used to help in the library at lunchtimes, getting first dibs on new books. To look at, its newness was all The Outsiders had going for it. Beige and brick-brown, that original cover was surely designed by someone listening to The Seekers. And the blurb - troubled youths, gang warfare and Being Misunderstood - did not pitch The Outsiders as an obvious choice for an 11-year-old accustomed to no worse than Enid Blyton-grade naughtiness. But it was precisely the obvious choice for a girl on the brink of puberty and the 1970s.

Nowadays The Outsiders is revered as a pioneer: the first young-adult novel. In its pages, parents are absent - dead or neglectful, or just out of touch - leaving kids to roam the streets, putting themselves in the path of trouble. In the foreground, rival gangs clash in "rumbles", packing switchblades, "heaters" (guns) and busted pop bottles, while under-age drinking, jail time, teenage pregnancy and death are lit in flickers from Ponyboy's dime-store lighter. A roiling adolescent sense of injustice pervades everything.

There's a good reason for this, the same reason the book still has currency today: the author of The Outsiders was herself a teenager when she wrote the book. And yes, she was a girl. Susan Eloise Hinton was 18 when The Outsiders appeared in print, her publishers having lopped her forenames to SE so as not to put off male readers. At 15, she'd been stirred to write the kind of book that she would want to read, about the kind of people she knew. Like her protagonist, Hinton grew up on the wrong side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The east-side hoods, greasers, wore their long hair slicked back; from the west side, with "semi-Beatle" haircuts, came the Socs (Socials).

Ponyboy is a greaser, and, walking home from the drive-in one night, gets "jumped" by five Socs in a Corvair. Later, his pal Johnny draws a knife and a Soc is killed. On the run from the law, the two boys save some schoolchildren from a fire. Johnny dies a hero - his last words, "Stay gold, Ponyboy" - whereupon the lone-wolf greaser Dally gets himself shot dead under a street lamp by taunting cops with an unloaded gun.

I read it through at a bolt; then again, savouring and devouring it. The book lends itself to repeated readings, its last line echoing the first, bringing the reader full circle. Week after week, I extended the loan (a library monitor's prerogative) and only when I'd committed the book to heart did I let my friends, Joanne and Sandra, in on it. Read this. We became a cult of three.

My growing-up began with The Outsiders, the book granting me a secret life outside of my family: the secret life of a crush. It was Ponyboy, of course. With his love of sunsets and books, his sense of honour and readiness to fight for it, his feeling of not fitting in, and his ability to put it all into words (the story is framed as a high-school English essay), the orphaned Ponyboy was a bookish girl's dream guy. Which isn't surprising, since SE Hinton was a bookish girl and she'd dreamt him up.

There aren't too many female characters in The Outsiders: besides pregnant Sandy, off stage-left, there's only Johnny's bad mom and Cherry Valance, the dead Soc's peacemaking girlfriend ("You can see the sunset from the west side, too, you know"). Even so, you'll meet far more women than men for whom The Outsiders punched the first stamp on their passport out of childhood. To girls growing up on the crest of second-wave feminism, the book pitched the story that, beneath their rough-hewn exteriors, boys and men weren't that different from us - sensitive sunset-watchers who just wanted to talk. Which makes you wonder how many broken marriages can be traced back to a pubertal ingestion of The Outsiders.

As I'd staked Ponyboy as mine at the outset, my fellow cultists were left to select their own crushes from the supporting cast. Joanne chose the gang's runt, the doomed Johnny Cade, while Sandra threw herself at Ponyboy's sunny, good-looking brother, Sodapop. (The Curtis boys' dead-in-a-car-crash parents must've been on mescaline when they named their sons.) We three were like a fundamentalist cell, not just worshipping but endlessly dissecting and elaborating the book's characters and plot-lines, the boys and their dilemmas more vivid to us than real life at State School No. 4888. We were the first in our class to launch into puberty. We were taller than the teacher by third term and looked down on the poor man in more ways than one. In Art we drew bare-breasted mermaids (reducing to stubs our flesh-pink Derwents) and, at his suggestion of bikini tops, condemned Mr Francis as a square.

Before The Outsiders, what did teenagers read? For boys, there was Biggles and the Hardy Boys; for girls, Nancy Drew or the genre derided by SE Hinton as "Mary Jane Goes to the Prom". Of the latter, I recall Beverly Cleary's Fifteen, in which the gamest things got was clean-cut Stan turning "pale beneath his tan". (Jane thought that he'd gone off her, but it turned out to be appendicitis.) Titles recommended to readers of the 1972 paperback edition of The Outsiders included Mary Poppins, Noel Streatfield's Party Frock and Gerald Durrell's The Donkey Rustlers.

Alternatively, they could squirm on the sly over their parents' copies of Valley of the Dolls or The Carpetbaggers, dog-eared pages flagging the dirty bits. Towards the end of The Outsiders, with his hoodlum friends dead and his life shook up, Ponyboy has lost interest in school. He's got homework to do, but instead hunts around for a book to read. "I'd read everything in the house about fifty million times, even Darry's copy of The Carpetbaggers, though he told me I wasn't old enough to read it. I thought so too after I finished it."

What would Ponyboy make, I wonder, of some of today's young-adult novels, successors in the looking-for-trouble lineage that began with the The Outsiders? I can tell you: he would blush. In fact, Harold Robbins himself would blush at the books my daughter has been bringing home from the library since the age of 13. In its day, The Carpetbaggers scandalised with its depiction of fellatio, the first in popular print. In many of today's young-adult novels, sex comes at the reader from all ends. All the f-s and c-s are there - not just as verbiage, but embodied - along with incest, drug abuse, suicide, and self-harm of every slash and stripe. If The Outsiders was raw, these books are all pores. But aside from the seedy bleakness, what most differentiates the newcomers from their progenitor is that The Outsiders was written for adolescents by an adolescent. Sure, Susan Hinton's prose is earnest, naive, sometimes overwrought; but the reality she captured - irretrievable by an adult - was that of not knowing any better. Or worse.

It's been 41 years since The Outsiders was first published, and it still sells and sells. In part, that longevity is due to the book's widespread adoption as a high-school English text, meaning that a generation or more has read The Outsiders under sufferance. Cover a book in clear plastic and stack it in a tub with 20 more like it: there's no surer way of making it a thing begrudged.

Ponyboy, supposing he'd been real, would be 55 now. In the '70s, newly graduated, he might have been one of those teachers lured from the US to fill the Australian shortfall. He'd have lost a brother or two in Vietnam, I'll bet, and others of the gang besides. I can just see him at Templestowe Tech, circa 1974: russet sideburns, turtleneck jumper, desert boots - intense, the kind of teacher who can get through to kids. He'd be going grey now. Going grey, but staying gold.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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