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The novel begins years after the main action has occurred with two friends meeting on the beach reminded of old times.  The remainder of the book is told as a flashback.

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"Rumble Fish" begins with two friends, Rusty-James and Steve, reuniting after nearly six years. Steve has started college, and Rusty-James is unemployed after having served a five year sentence in a reformatory. Then novel then flashes back to six years earlier to elaborate on the boys' relationship and the events that took place to bring them where they are at the beginning of the novel.

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The novel opens five or six years after the main action, as Rusty-James runs into his old friend Steve, whom he hasn't seen in all that time. They are on the beach, far from the original action. Rusty-James has been "bumming around," not working since getting out of the reformatory after serving five years, and Steve is on vacation from college, where he's studying to become a high school teacher. Steve invites Rusty-James to dinner, an invitation he has no intention of accepting. Steve is too much of a reminder of some bad times.

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