Hinton's Depiction of Girls, Boys, Adults, and Young Adults

(Novels for Students)

Hinton has often been criticized for the emphasis on male toughness and machismo in her books. In Rumble Fish, the portrayal of Patty and other girls is simplistic; the reader never really gets a sense of Patty as a living, breathing person, and she seems mainly interested in her appearance and in going out with the toughest boy. Hinton once explained that she grew up before the feminist movement, that the girls she knew in high school were more concerned with their hair and makeup than anything else, and that girls derived their status not from who they were but from who their boyfriends were. This is borne out by the action in the book. When the balance of power shifts so that Smokey is top dog in the group, Patty coolly shifts her affections to him without a backward glance.

This makes her seem shallow, which she is, but so is Rusty-James's affection for her; at one point, kissing the top of her head, he notes that she has dark roots in her hair. He comments, "I like blond girls. I don't care how they got that way." The reader senses that it's not so much her personality—of which she doesn't have much— that attracts him but simply that she's female, blond, and likes him. At one point, he includes her in a list of people he loves, but he's unmoved by her defection to Smokey at the end of the book, even though this was prompted by Smokey's deception.

Other than Patty, girls are rarely mentioned in the book. Although he's incredulous that Steve, at fourteen, would be shy about girls, for Rusty-James, they're still barely a blip on his mental radar screen. Girls are just there, like furniture. When he goes to the lake, he names the boys he goes with but says, "There were some girls and we built a fire and went swimming." The text implies that he kissed or made out with the girls but that it didn't mean anything to him; whatever happened, he's already forgotten it; it was just something he did, and the girls didn't even have names or personalities.

In addition, the degree of male toughness or machismo in the book seems exaggerated, leading to unrealistic behavior. Rusty-James is just fourteen, and he's been deeply wounded emotionally throughout his life, but he's as tough as a hardened Marine when it comes to physical suffering. After sustaining a knife slash deep enough to expose his ribs, he just grits his teeth when his brother pours alcohol over the wound and goes to school the next day. He doesn't even bandage it, even though the wound is obviously deep enough to require stitches and the pain would inhibit most people from moving around at all. All he says is, "I wasn't feeling too hot and I was bleeding off and on, but I usually go to school if I can." It seems unbelievable that he wouldn't simply stay home, especially since his father doesn't care and he is not close to any of his teachers. After school, he goes out and shoots a game of pool, seemingly oblivious to his wound, and runs for blocks and leaps from one roof to another after stealing some hubcaps. During the chase he becomes aware of the pain: "My side was killing me." And later, after the rooftop leap, he finally passes out. What's surprising is that he didn't pass out sooner and that he didn't remark on the pain while bending over to shoot pool.

The next day he washes out the wound again, noting, "It hurt real steady, not bad, but steady like a toothache." That night he goes swimming up at the lake and only later wonders if the lake water might have infected the wound. It seems unlikely that the wound wouldn't have hurt when the water touched it or when he swam, possibly reopening it. Throughout the book, his awareness of the wound comes and goes, but it never affects him the way one would assume it would affect any...

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Rumble Fish

(Novels for Students)

Structure and Technique
As she did in The Outsiders, Hinton employs a frame to the story, the main body of which is a series of events that occurred five years earlier. The story is framed by the first and last chapters, which describe the surprise meeting of Rusty-James, the book's narrator, and Steve Hays, who had been his best friend during the time the story describes. The story is, in effect, a piece of Rusty-James's memory, and memory, the ability to remember things (or, conversely, to forget them) is a concern that appears throughout the narrative.

There is not much cause and effect in this story. In The Outsiders there is a random element to the act of violence that triggers the story—the stabbing in the park—but once that has occurred the rest of the story proceeds with absolute fidelity to the motivations of its characters. Once Johnny stabs Bob, everyone behaves exactly as they would be expected to behave, and the story gathers momentum toward its proper conclusion. In Rumble Fish there is no such turning point, no crucial act or omission (unless it is the simple returning to town of the Motorcycle Boy) after which the action of the story becomes inevitable. Instead it is all random, and it is all inevitable. Like a Greek tragedy dressed in modern black leather and denim, Rumble Fish is the story of human subservience to fate, to a destiny over which, finally, there can be no control.

We receive all our information in the story through the consciousness of Rusty-James. As with Ponyboy in The Outsiders and Bryon in That Was Then, This Is Now, this is the narrator's story, filtered through the narrator's point of view. Once again, this technique of first-person narrative permits an immediate involvement on the part of the reader. With Rusty-James we are struck from the beginning by his basic honesty and ingenuousness. "I ain't never been a particularly smart person," he tells us. "But I get along all right." Despite his submission to the macho world in which he lives ("I get mad quick, and I get over it quick"), his voice is a voice whose candor we trust. If we know at times that he is fooling himself we never feel that he is trying to fool us; this adds poignancy to some of his comments about himself, where the war between his outer toughness and his inner sensitivity seems to be proceeding without his notice. "For a tough kid," he says, "I had a bad habit of getting attached to people." In the early stages of the book, in fact, his teenage braggadocio is both entertaining and revealing:

I get annoyed when people want to kill me for some stupid little reason. Something big, and I don't mind it so much.

I'm always in dumb classes. In grade school they start separating dumb people from smart people and it only takes you a couple of years to figure out which one you are.

We can't help but feel that, with an attitude like this, he is not quite so dumb and uncomplicated as he makes himself out to be. As a result we warm up to him further.

In addition to this quality of immediacy, there are two other attributes of the first-person narrative that are of particular importance in Rumble Fish. The first is that it must often operate by suggestion. It must somehow transfer to the reader an awareness that is not yet present in the mind of the narrator. Rusty-James's relationship with his girlfriend Patty is a useful example of this. She treats him like a yo-yo, leading him on and then suddenly breaking up with him. Despite this treatment, he continues to believe that they share what he has been told is love. "I wondered if I loved anybody," he asks himself, and answers, "Patty, for sure." But in the very same paragraph we read: "Then I thought of people I could really count on, and couldn't come up with anybody."

In similar fashion, his preoccupation with appearance, with his looking like the Motorcycle Boy, or like his mother, and with sight, vision, builds up throughout the book until it pays catastrophic dividends at the end. We can feel it coming, because of the accumulation of evidence that has made us sensitive to it, but Rusty-James, whose "loyalty is his only vice," doesn't see it coming until it runs him down.

It is interesting to note that, since this story is so obviously a memory, recalled in its entirety in later times, there should be in the voice of the narrator some indication that he is speaking from an older, wiser vantage. It is common to stick phrases like "if I knew then what I know now," or "I couldn't have been more wrong," at strategic spots, usually near the end of chapters, to push the story along. Hinton in fact uses this device in The Outsiders; at the end of chapter 3 Ponyboy thinks: "Things gotta get better, I figured. They couldn't get worse. I was wrong."

In Rumble Fish there is a curious absence of this older-but-wiser voice. The reader accepts this inconsistency without complaint, in part because of the natural complicity of the reader and the author on behalf of the story, but there is more to it. There is a clear sense from the beginning chapter that Rusty-James is still not in complete possession of "the truth" of his story, that he has instead been running away from it. We get the sense that he is confronting this story for the first time, that it is as new to him as it is to us. The immediacy of the first-person narrative allows us to share along with him the pain and perplexity of his discovery.

The third quality of first-person narration that is important here is its ability to capture in the emotion of the narrator the mood of the times. The sense of confusion, of helplessness in the narrator renders the novel's theme of blind fate and destiny far more effectively than description ever could. As Rusty-James proceeds through the book his voice changes subtly. His apparent arrogance at the beginning ("Pain don't scare me much".…) becomes eroded, and the uncertainty of the murky world he sees around him begins to break through his rather fragile self-confidence. "All my life, all I had to worry about was real things, things you could touch, or punch, or run away from. I had been scared before, but it was always something real to be scared of—not having any money, or some big kid looking to beat you up, or wondering if the Motorcycle Boy was gone for good. I didn't like this being scared of something and not knowing exactly what it was. I couldn't fight it if I didn't know what it was."

At last he discovers that "nothing was like I thought it was…everything was changed," but in this he is not entirely correct. In fact nothing has changed, everything is exactly as it was; the only change is his awareness of it, an awareness that had crept into the reader's imagination much earlier, as the tone of the novel shifted ever so gradually from teenage braggadocio to human helplessness.

Because Rumble Fish is such an elusive, dreamy book, progress in the story is made by an accretion of awarenesses, a repetition of imagery. It is not so much a question of events turning uncontrollable as it is a growing awareness that events have always been out of the characters' control. The references to time and memory (as instigators of the characters' present lives), to the fleeting color and dreary monotone of life, to insanity and vision, to Greek tragedy and the idea of destiny, all of these gather strength as the novel progresses until the resolution of the story is quite beyond the ability of the characters to change it.

Like the colorful Siamese fighting fish, the Motorcycle Boy, and, to an extent we don't at first realize, his brother, Rusty-James, are trapped by a kind of biological necessity. Victims of their own destiny, of circumstances over which they had no say, their options for the future are very much the classical hero's options. They can, like the Motorcycle Boy, make the Promethean choice—to steal the fire, set free the fish—and suffer the inevitable Promethean punishment of the gods. Or, like Rusty-James, they can try to endure, but this latter choice—to live on in a world stripped of meaning, a world uncolored by hope—is in many ways the more difficult of the two. "I figured if I didn't see [Steve], I'd start forgetting again," Rusty-James says. "But it's been taking me longer than I thought it would."

It may take him the rest of his life.

Imagery and Metaphor
The most striking and persistent image of the book is certainly that of color and monotone, and of vision in general (with all that the word implies). Part of the reason that the movie version offended those of more delicate sensibility was that it took this central metaphor of the book and turned it into a much more visual presence in the film. The film is shot in black-and-white, mimicking the colorblind world of the Motorcycle Boy, with only the fish, bright red and blue, colored individually onto the screen. The result was either blatant exhibitionism (for those who hated the film) or movie magic (for those who loved it).

The contrast between color and monotone is much more subtly handled in the book. The Motorcycle Boy, that model of perfection in the world of Rumble Fish, is color-blind. His color blindness is not just a problem with red and green; it is total. The world to him looks like "Black-and-white TV, I guess….That's it." Hinton's decision to bestow upon this larger-than-life figure the curious imperfection of color blindness is, I think, inspired, and it reflects the enchantment of this particular book, as well as the levels of meaning with which it operates in the reader.

Our first reaction to the color blindness is that it sets the Motorcycle Boy apart from the ordinary. It is, after all, a relatively uncommon condition. Furthermore, it is a condition with hereditary connotations, the kind of malady, like hemophilia, that besets royal houses, a condition of imperfection that at the same time suggests a privileged blood line. And of course the question of heredity, of propinquity, is a recurring obsession with this family, and with Rusty-James in particular. He is forever wondering who looks like whom in the family, and who has inherited what from each of his parents. It is of extreme importance to him that he find a permanent spot in the hopelessly dispersed and unresponsive family lineage represented by his absent mother and his functionally absent father.

Rusty-James yearns most of all for a merging with his brother, but the color blindness is a clear and constant reminder of how dissimilar they are. Rusty-James loves color. He loves the colored lights of the city because for him they represent life in all its vibrant potential. He's proud of the uncommon color of his hair, "an odd shade of dark red, like black-cherry pop." In one of his better lines, early in the book, he says, "I like blond girls. I don't care how they get that way."

Color is an important symbol of life for Rusty-James but he would give it up in a minute (just as he would kill to have someone finally say that he resembles his brother) for the more profound message of color blindness. The color blindness of the Motorcycle Boy is a sign that he is one of the Elect, the special ones, and Rusty-James mistakes this sign of exceptionality for the designation he truly seeks, that of belonging. Rusty-James will grasp at straws, and it is only at the end of the book, when in an earth-shattering moment he is allowed to participate in his brother's tragic imperfection, that the bleak reality of the Motorcycle Boy's vision becomes apparent to him.

All of this would have justified Hinton's use of the motif of color blindness and assured it a central place in the novel. The weight of the metaphor goes deeper, though, and it finally defines the world of Rumble Fish as surely as it marks the character of the Motorcycle Boy.

"Sometimes," the Motorcycle Boy says, "it seems to me that I can remember colors, way back when I was a little kid. That was a long time ago." This wistful comment suggests that the Motorcycle Boy's color blindness is not a congenital condition at all. It suggests instead that this vision of his is something he's attained, a product of his life. Whether his attainment of this vision is to be considered a gift or a deprivation is not clear. What is clear is that, in Rumble Fish at least, the world of light and color that Rusty-James so admires is exposed as an illusion, a child's vision, and the monotone world of the Motorcycle Boy is the reality.

The Motorcycle Boy is the classical hero turned upside down. He's the "perfect knight," the "pagan prince," who sees into the heart of things, "the laughter shining dark out of his eyes." "[The Motorcycle Boy] saw things other people couldn't see, and laughed when nothing was funny. 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."

Like Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the Motorcycle Boy has seen too deeply into the secrets of things, into a reality that is gray and desperate. He has seen too much to be able to live a normal life in the world of colored lights and party sounds. In fact, like the tragic hero of that earlier book, he has seen too much to be able to live at all.

The book itself gradually takes on his vision. Things become murky, and motivations blurred. It culminates in Rusty-James's finally getting what he has so devoutly wished for, a merging of his identity with that of his idolized brother, in the penultimate scene by the river. This scene is rendered in such a way that one can only see it as a case of the curtain being suddenly torn open, revealing the brutal reality behind it. "The next thing I knew I was thrown up against a police car and frisked. I stared straight ahead at the flashing light. There was something really wrong with it. I was scared to think about what was wrong with it, but I knew, anyway. It was gray.... Everything was black and white and gray. It was as quiet as a graveyard.... I was in a glass bubble and everyone else was outside it and I'd be alone like that for the rest of my life."

Hinton's deft handling of imagery and symbol does not confine itself to color and vision. The river, which divides the main part of the city from the boys' neighborhood, becomes a powerful symbol of their life, their world. The Motorcycle Boy stares into the river, as if looking for messages. Rusty-James thinks that the river stinks; he'd just as soon get away from it. The contrast to the river is, of course, the ocean, which the Motorcycle Boy had the chance to see (and didn't) in California and which entrances Rusty-James. "No kidding," he says of the Motorcycle Boy's trip to California. "The ocean and everything." "Kid," the Motorcycle Boy responds, cryptically, "I never got past the river." It is significant that when the Motorcycle Boy decides to liberate the rumble fish from their glass bowls (recalling the glass bubble in which he lives) he wants to see "if they'd act that way (destroy one another) in the river." His dramatic attempt to release the Siamese fighting fish is an effort not to save them, or even to free them, really; it is merely the preparation for the real test, the trial by combat. The Motorcycle Boy is not much interested in their salvation; he is more interested in measuring how their colorful belligerence, their legendary powers of self-destruction...

(The entire section is 6430 words.)