Rumble Fish contains many elements of the successful Hinton formula, in which a young male protagonist narrates the story of his often violent experiences during a crucial period of growing up. There are few adults or women who intrude on this romantic male stage, where the protagonist—like the reader—learns a number of important lessons about the world and people’s roles in it. The names of the characters hint at the novel’s allegorical mode: “Rusty-James” and “Motorcycle Boy,” respectively, the narrator and the older brother who gives the narrator his lessons. The distinction of Rumble Fish is the intensity of its negative message.
If anything, Rumble Fish is more violent and action-packed than Hinton’s earlier novels, for it includes a number of gang battles, from the early fight between Rusty-James and Buff Wilcox to Motorcycle Boy’s violent death. Rusty-James is stabbed in that first rumble but is patched up by Motorcycle Boy at home, where the reader discovers that their mother has escaped to California and the two boys live with their alcoholic father. Time after time in the novel, Rusty-James has similar violent encounters, only to be saved by Motorcycle Boy, who appears out of nowhere, like a knight from a medieval romance.
Motorcycle Boy is not able in the end to save himself, however: Trying to free the “rumble fish” of the title by taking them from the pet store where they are sold and pouring them into the river, he is shot and killed by police. Rusty-James is taken to a reformatory. Six years later, Rusty-James encounters his friend Steve from this period on a beach in Southern California. It is clear that Steve would like to reconnect with Rusty-James, but the narrator has no such illusions: “I waved back. I wasn’t going to see him. I wasn’t going to meet him for dinner, or anything else. I figured if I didn’t see him, I’d start forgetting again. But it’s been taking me longer than I thought it would.”
What Rusty-James has been trying to forget, apparently, is the death of Motorcycle Boy and the memories of that painful period.
What makes Rumble Fish different from earlier Hinton works is the darkness of this vision. Here is no happy ending, as in The Outsiders, and no bittersweet lesson about growing up, as in That Was Then, This Is Now. What readers find instead is a novel about the impossibility of escaping the past, or one’s own biological destiny, and the finality of ending alone.
Also different is the mode of the novel: Rumble Fish has a dreamy, almost mythic mood to it. (Coppola’s film version of the novel captured this quality perfectly, in its mixed use of color and black-and-white photography.) The character of Motorcycle Boy is more romantic, and thus less realistic, than any previous character in Hinton’s novels. The mixed critical reaction to the work—much stronger than to earlier Hinton novels—indicates this difficulty. Many critics of young adult fiction had trouble dealing with a work that was so much darker and more somber and stylistically moodier.