Rumble Fish opens and closes in California, at least five years after the main action of the story has transpired. Rusty-James, who narrates the story in the first person, describes a chance encounter with his former best friend, Steve Hays, who is now studying to be a teacher. The dialogue, which propels the novel, reveals that Rusty-James has been in a reformatory and creates the framework for the flashback that becomes the novel’s vehicle.
Much of the story’s action originates in Benny’s, a pool hall and bar that serves as a hangout for junior and senior high school students who are disillusioned by the poverty of their neighborhood and the callous indifference of adults to their frustration. They are frequently truant from school, unsuccessful in the classroom, and usually in trouble. School officials are depicted as corrupt; one coach even offers Rusty-James a five-dollar bribe to beat up another student. Police officials add to the conflict and tension of the neighborhood with their abuse of power and prejudiced treatment of Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy.
Parental figures, too, are destroyed by their own weaknesses; Rusty-James’ father was once a successful attorney, but, as an alcoholic, he now offers no security or role model for Rusty-James or his brother. Their mother, whom the Motorcycle Boy eventually locates in California, has abandoned all responsibility for her sons, and the story of being left alone by her when he was a toddler haunts Rusty-James. He has developed a fear of loneliness as a result of this early loss, but the eventual loss of his girlfriend, his best friend, his street reputation, and his brother leaves Rusty-James dazed; at the novel’s close, he is wandering California and still trying to forget the pain of his past.
Although the story’s language is somewhat dated—using terms such as “rumble,” for example, to refer the frequent street fights—the conflicts are real and transcend time and place. The ready availability of alcohol and other drugs, the pervasive threat of concealed weapons, the alienation and disdain felt by street kids with no power in mainstream society, the constant jockeying for position within the framework of the street—all these issues remain pertinent and challenging for young adults.
The bravado of the young toughs masks the insecurities and vulnerability just beneath the surface, and, as Rusty-James attempts to hold on more tightly to the Motorcycle Boy, his mask falls. Rusty-James suffers a serious stab wound in his fight with Biff, his girlfriend Patty breaks up with him, he gets transferred to a rival school where he knows he will be beaten by his enemies, and he and Steve are jumped after getting drunk in an adult theater with the Motorcycle Boy. Little by little, the thin fabric of their existence tears, and eventually even Steve tells Rusty-James that he is like the ball in a pinball machine, hopelessly buffeted by external forces. Steve recognizes that the randomness of this existence will destroy him, and he, too, abandons Rusty-James. Patty becomes Smokey’s girlfriend, and Rusty-James learns that the group leadership has shifted to Smokey as well. The final conflict in a pet store involving the Motorcycle Boy and the fighting “rumble” fish of the title, more than any scene in the story, symbolizes the persecution, the misunderstanding, and the wasted potential of these young lives.