Smokey Bennet Smokey, named for the unusual color of his eyes, is one of Rusty-James's friends and a member of the group, but he is nervous about gang violence. When Rusty-James says of the "old days" when he was eleven, "A gang really meant some-thin' back then," Smokey says, "Meant gettin' sent to the hospital once a week." Smokey is not a loyal friend; he sets things up to make it look like Rusty-James is cheating on his girlfriend Patty so she'll dump Rusty-James and Smokey can go out with her. He also tells Rusty-James that if the gangs were still around, he would be president, not Rusty-James.
B.J. B. J. is a friend of Rusty-James's, one of the group. He is fat but tough. As Rusty-James says, "Tough fat guys ain't as rare as you think."
Cassandra Cassandra was a student teacher at the high school the year before, and the Motorcycle Boy was in one of her classes. She fell in love with him, and although she has a college education and comes from a good family, she moved into an apartment in Rusty-James's part of town and now follows the Motorcycle Boy around. She doesn't wear makeup, often goes barefoot, and has a lot of cats. Rusty-James views her as phony because she tries to talk like the Motorcycle Boy, saying "meaningful" things. She is a drug addict, whose habit the Motorcycle Boy detests.
Mr. Harrigan Mr. Harrigan is the guidance counselor at Rusty-James's school. Rusty-James says, "There was something about Mr. Harrigan that made my mind go kind of blank, even when he was swatting me with a board."
Weston McCauley McCauley is a former friend of the Motorcycle Boy and used to be second lieutenant in the Packers, the local gang. He's a heroin addict now.
Midget Midget is a tall, skinny kid who notifies Rusty-James that Biff Wilcox is out to get him.
Motorcycle Boy The Motorcycle Boy, whose real name the reader never learns, is Rusty-James's older brother and hero. He got his name because he loves motorcycles and steals them and rides them. He is not interested in owning one, though. He is color-blind and sometimes deaf as a result of motorcycle accidents, and although he is a charismatic, natural leader, he's also odd—not quite connected to the rest of humanity. Rusty-James says, "He had strange eyes—they made me think of a two-way mirror. Like you could feel somebody on the other side watching you, but the only reflection you saw was your own." He has been expelled from school for scoring "perfect tests"; it's clear that the authorities assumed he was cheating but not clear whether he actually was. It seems that he might be much smarter than the school gives him credit for because he reads a great deal. He has always seemed older than his real age, and he tells Rusty-James, "I stopped bein' a little kid when I was five." When he was fourteen, storekeepers stopped asking for his ID, so he could buy liquor. At the same age, he was the leader of the gang, the Packers, and older kids asked for his advice. Later, he decided that gang violence was stupid and boring and put a stop to it. He detests drug addicts, and rumor has it that he once killed a junkie. He tells Rusty-James that if he ever uses drugs, he' ll break Rusty-James's arm, and Rusty-James believes him.
Roy Patterson Roy Patterson is a police officer who has a grudge against Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy and is constantly on the lookout for...
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a way to "get" them. In the end, he kills the Motorcycle Boy without warning when the Motorcycle Boy is stealing fish from a pet store.
Patty Patty is Rusty-James's girlfriend. Her mother is a nurse who works nights, and Patty has to stay home and take care of her little brothers. She has bleached blond hair and is tough. She once went after another girl with a broken bottle because the girl was flirting with Rusty-James.
Don Price Price is a smart-alecky kid who's been giving Coach Ryan trouble. Ryan offers Rusty-James five dollars to beat him up.
Rusty-James Rusty-James, whose legal name is Russel-James, is fourteen during the main action of the book but talks and acts like someone much older and tougher. He confesses that he's not very bright and that he has a temper. He steals, curses, smokes, drinks, and gets into fights about once a week, although he hasn't lost one in two years. He idolizes his older brother, Motorcycle Boy, and wants to be just like him because Motorcycle Boy is "the coolest person in the whole world." He doesn't think much about the future, or the past, preferring to live in the present. His friend Steve is important to him because Steve is perhaps the only stable person he has ever known. Rusty-James was left alone in his parents' house for three days when he was two years old because his mother left the family, taking the Motorcycle Boy, and his father disappeared on a three-day drinking binge. Perhaps because of this, Rusty-James hates to be alone and dreads the day the Motorcycle Boy will leave home for good.
Rusty-James's Father Rusty-James's father, whom his sons call "the old man," is an alcoholic. He has been to law school and has a large vocabulary and an educated way of speaking. He is "a middle-sized, middle-aged guy, kind of blond and balding on top, and has light-blue eyes. He was the kind of person nobody ever noticed. He had a lot of friends, though, mostly bartenders." He is completely detached from his sons and views them the way an anthropologist would view an unfamiliar tribe. "What strange lives you two lead," he says mildly when he learns that Rusty-James has been cut in a knife fight.
He began drinking when Rusty-James's mother left: he went on a three-day binge, and it was, according to him, the first time he was ever drunk. He says of his marriage and his downfall from lawyer to skid-row drunk, "Our marriage was a classic example of a preacher marrying an atheist, thinking to make a convert, and instead ending up doubting his own faith." This implies that his wife was some sort of criminal. He says, "She married me for fun, and when it stopped being fun she left."
Rusty-James's Mother Rusty-James's mother left the family when Rusty-James was two and the Motorcycle Boy was six. At first, she took the Motorcycle Boy with her, but then she abandoned him, and eventually he was taken back to his father and Rusty-James. She now lives out in California and apparently is still unstable, moving from relationship to relationship. When the Motorcycle Boy finds her, she's living with a movie producer but is thinking of "moving in with an artist who lived in a tree house up in the mountains."
Coach Ryan Ryan is the gym teacher at Rusty-James's school. Rusty-James dislikes him because he thinks the coach is a phony. The coach uses teen slang and tries too hard to be friends with Rusty-James, which makes Rusty-James suspicious. Rusty-James says, "I hoped to hell when I was grown I'd have better things to do than hang around some tough punk, hoping his rep would rub off on me."
Steve Steve is Rusty-James's best friend and, like Rusty-James, is fourteen. He looks like he's twelve and acts forty. According to Rusty-James, "he could say stuff that I wouldn't let anybody else get away with." He comes from a good family and is scared of violence. He is shy with girls, doesn't smoke, and doesn't drink until later in the novel. He has "dark-blond hair and dark-brown eyes and a face like a real sincere rabbit." He is, according to Rusty-James, smarter than Rusty-James. Rusty-James protects him from other people who want to beat him up and listens to his many worries. In exchange, Steve does Rusty-James's math homework and lets Rusty-James copy his history homework so Rusty-James won't flunk. However, this is not the only reason Rusty-James is close to him. Rusty-James says, "Maybe it was because I had known him longer than I'd known anybody I wasn't related to." Steve's parents, on the other hand, don't even know that he knows Rusty-James.
Biff Wilcox Biff is a member of another group, formerly allies of Rusty-James's group, now enemies. Rusty-James notes that if the old gang wars were still going on, Biff would be leader of his gang, the Devilhawks. He is tougher and more dangerous than most kids.
Rumble Fish records the experiences, friendships, and conflicts of a group of Oklahoma teen-agers. Hinton's most ambitious work, it focuses on the character of Rusty-James, through whom the reader confronts a disillusioning vision of life as an empty, pointless experience wholly controlled by destiny.
Hinton traces the evolution of Rusty-James's personality by comparing him to the book's two other central characters: his brother, the Motorcycle Boy, whom he emulates, and Steve, an emotional, shy, and awkward teen-ager whom he nevertheless considers his best friend. As Rusty-James steps further away from his troubled but self-regulated life, he achieves a greater understanding of his world, and the full meaning of Hinton's dark image of adolescent despair emerges.
Rusty-James assumes a tough exterior to mask his vulnerability and loneliness. He admits that he is afraid to be alone, obsessed with appearance, and dependent on the company of others. Rejected by the school authorities and his girlfriend, he gradually "burns out" and succumbs to the disturbing family traditions that have helped shape his negative outlook on life. Unable to identify with the gang that once boosted his sense of self-importance, he gravitates toward the "cool" but self-destructive model of the Motorcycle Boy.
Rusty-James's mother abandoned the family when he was two years old, leaving his father to sink into alcoholism and the Motorcycle Boy to grow estranged from virtually all of humanity. Rusty-James himself is unable to overcome his family's legacy; his fate echoes Greek tragedy, which asserts that humanity behaves primarily according to biological necessity and destiny. The fighting "rumble fish" for whom the book is named, as well as mythological figures such as Prometheus who dare to resist this determinism, are inevitably destroyed.
Rusty-James's father and the Motorcycle Boy seem well aware of this tragic reality from the beginning of the book, and Rusty-James gains a similar awareness as he evolves. Maturity, Hinton suggests, is more a matter of awareness than of physical change. As Rusty- James learns more about himself and sees into the soul of the brother he idolizes, his confusion increases, his confidence crumbles, and his childish view of reality gives way to an undeniable glimpse of his own stagnation and helplessness. He soon discovers that he has no more freedom than the fighting fish, confined to solitary fishbowls and prevented from swimming free. When Steve calls Rusty-James a ball in a pinball machine, he correctly assesses his friend's disorientation.
Although Rusty-James ultimately gains a measure of independence from the Motorcycle Boy's violent world, he has nonetheless retreated from society and has become the same sort of cynical drifter his brother was. Rusty-James's alienation leads to his spiritual collapse. He has achieved physical survival, but seems destined over time to repeat the fate of the Motorcycle Boy.
The Motorcycle Boy is the mirror in which Rusty-James sees himself. He floats through the murky world of Rumble Fish, becoming active only in the concluding chapters, but his image inspires and guides Rusty-James throughout the course of the book. The product of violence, the Motorcycle Boy has passed into a grey world without illusions or hope. He seems to have peered into the very heart of things and seen the darkest of truths.
Interestingly enough, the Motorcycle Boy appears to be bright, articulate, and well-read; but so too does his father, a law school graduate. The fate of father and son, both of whom have retreated into a vacant existence, underscores the imprisoning nature of family tradition and despair. Like Rusty-James, the Motorcycle Boy accepts "the way things are," and his dramatic attempt to liberate the fighting fish from the pet store—an act which leads to his death— can be seen only as a self-destructive, arbitrary attempt doomed to failure.
Described as a heroic figure born at the wrong time or as "royalty in exile," the Motorcycle Boy resembles an Arthurian knight blessed with vision and committed to his sense of reality, however bleak. But he is entirely amoral, lacks direction and purpose, and cannot win the admiration of a society that considers him a misfit. Inevitably, he becomes an object of hatred for the local police, who await the opportunity to destroy him.
Rusty-James wishfully considers himself an heir to his brother's image, but people continually emphasize the differences in their natures. The chief irony of the novel is that Rusty-James inevitably becomes like his brother and, in the book's epilogue, turns up far from home but devoid of ambition, resolve, or purpose. Rather than viewing her characters as "losers" who have spoiled their lives, Hinton seems to pity those who have never had and never will have control over their futures.