S. E. Hinton had cut out a photograph of a boy and a motorcycle in a magazine, and kept the picture. The image stuck with her, and it inspired her to write a story. Rumble Fish was originally published in October, 1968, as a short story in Nimrod, a literary supplement to the University of Tulsa Magazine. This early work is an encapsulated version of the novel; the main difference between the two versions is the viewpoint narrator.
In the short story, Hinton switches viewpoints several times. When Hinton first attempted to convert the short story into a novel, she struggled with the decision of which character to use as her narrator. She wrote a draft using Steve Hays as her narrator, but did not like the completed manuscript. Steve was too smart, too well spoken, and too observant. He reminded her too much of Ponyboy Curtis and Bryon Douglas, the narrators from her first two novels, respectively. She decided to tell the story from Rusty-James’s point of view because he was a wholly different character than the ones she had devised in the past. Hinton considers Rumble Fish to be her most literary work.
In terms of themes and imagery, Rumble Fish is ambitious. Fate and destiny are the forces guiding Rusty-James’s life. Hinton explores this theme, too, in the characters of Dallas “Dally” Winston in The Outsiders (1967) and Mark Jennings in That Was Then, This Is Now (1971). In both cases, Hinton sets the reader up to accept that these characters were doomed from the start. However, because the reader sees Dally and Mark through Ponyboy’s and Bryon’s eyes, there is still some shred of hope for them. Hinton’s choice to make Rusty-James a predestined failure and show the reader the world through his eyes creates a tone for the story of hopelessness.
Rusty-James has given up on living even before the story begins. If there is nothing he can do to change his fate, why would anyone care about what happens to him? Hinton disproves the notion of fate by showing readers what has become of Steve in the five years that have passed since Motorcycle Boy’s death. Steve could have easily become like Rusty-James, but instead chose to leave their hometown and go to college. The difference between Steve and Rusty-James is a difference in attitude. Steve believes one can make his or her own luck, Rusty-James does not.
Hinton uses animal imagery to further identify her characters. Steve is often referred to as a rabbit; Motorcycle Boy as a panther. Rusty-James often refers to himself as a dog. Rusty-James’s choice illustrates that he sees himself as someone who is loyal. However, Motorcycle Boy calls Rusty-James a chameleon. This would imply that he sees Rusty-James as the kind of person who is always trying to fit in, compromising himself to be accepted.
In the pet store, the rumble fish are separated, one fish to a bowl. If two fish are put in the same bowl, they will fight to the death. They must be detached from others to survive, much like Motorcycle Boy. However, as Rusty-James and Motorcycle Boy’s father points out, Motorcycle Boy is not crazy; he had been born too late. He has an acute awareness of the state of the world. He might have fared better in life had he been born in a different era. Fate has played a cruel joke on Motorcycle Boy, and on the rumble fish.
Critical reaction to Rumble Fish has been mixed. Some critics fault Hinton for not writing another Ponyboy, and others do not like that Rusty-James is unable to fully express or understand what is happening around him. One review compares Hinton’s career to one of her characters, claiming her future in writing is as bleak as Rusty-James’s life. However, not all critics agree. Some consider her a brilliant novelist, and some praise Hinton for not sugarcoating her characters’ problems. Others like Rusty-James for the same reasons other reviewers do not. Despite the criticism, Rumble Fish has won many awards, including the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults citation in 1975.