The primary conflict in Susan E. Hinton's novel, Rumble Fish, concerns the relationship between Rusty-James and his brother, The Motorcycle Boy. The Motorcycle Boy has attempted to leave his former gang life behind him, escaping to California to avoid the temptations of the Tulsa, Oklahoma streets. However, The Motorcyle Boy's absence leaves Rusty-James without an influential big brother, and Rusty-James falls deeper into the gang and street life which his brother has tried to leave behind. Rusty-James looks to his brother as a type of young god who has always shown up to help him out of his various jams. While The Motorcycle Boy preaches independence that does not include gangs and violence, Rusty-James sees no such future for himself. He has a fear of being alone, and he realizes that The Motorcycle Boy will probably leave town again soon.
The climax of the story occurs when The Motorcycle Boy steals fish--Siamese fighting fish ("rumble fish")--from the pet store, hoping to symbolically release them in the nearby river. Instead, he is shot dead by the local police officer, and the fish die as well. The resolution takes place in the final chapter, which picks up where Chapter One left off: Old friend Steve has run into Rusty-James on a California beach some six years after they had last seen one another. Steve invites Rusty-James to dinner, but Rusty will not go: Steve is a reminder of the past which he is trying to forget.