Paul Newman is on my mind.
Mostly, that’s because the 83-year-old actor died Friday. I didn’t hear about it until Saturday, first from the Web and then from the non-stop television news channels filled with images of his face – always with close ups of his arresting blue eyes – from young man to older, young actor to older.
I enjoy Newman for his screen work – his portrayal of title character, “Hud,” made me like him even when I didn’t. His “Cool Hand Luke” could not show a clearer definition of what cool looks and acts like faced with soul-squelching circumstances.
Yet it is Newman’s appearance in a novel that has me thinking and writing about the late actor, activist, husband, father, race car driver, and philanthropist. The book is “The Outsiders,” and its author is S.E. Hinton. She was a teenager writing in the late 1960s who used Paul Newman to open her story and to let the reader first hear the voice of her narrator – a 14-year-old named Ponyboy Curtis.
“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. I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman – he looks tough and I don’t – but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad.”
I have that first sentence memorized. I read it for the first time when I was in third grade and one of my older sisters had the book. At the end – to come full circle – the reader discovers that Ponyboy is writing about what happened to him, his brothers, and their friends for an English term paper that he begins: “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.”
This world of teenagers, left alone by adults because of death, disinterest, or long hours working to pay bills, and the battle between the Greasers and the Socs (social set) read real to me then, and it resonates with readers still. The Outsiders is listed on numerous book lists for young readers. There are those who challenge the book or work to have it banned, too.
Hinton’s story is about responsibility and coming of age and trying to fit in where there seems to be neither room nor place; about family and ties that exist beyond blood relations; about money and social standing and those who have it and those who don’t; about expectations and stereotypes and just wanting to be understood. It is about friendship and hard knocks; bravado and courage; doubt and perseverance.
S.E. Hinton has said she was inspired to write The Outsiders, published in 1967, because of what she’d witnessed going on around her. She did what most how-to instruction books tell writers to do: Write what you know. Hinton found her voice and in so doing, she created a work of literature – that includes a Robert Frost poem that is pivotal to understanding her theme – that continues to speak to generations of young readers more than 40 years later.
I don’t know whether Paul Newman ever read The Outsiders. I don’t know if he ever talked with the author who used his name to open her story and to end the book.
I like to think that Newman would appreciate the connection to a good story that will keep him on the minds of generations of readers to come.