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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1528 words.)

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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 normal person.

The main characters in the book are all teenagers—the Motorcycle Boy is nineteen, Biff Wilcox is sixteen, and Rusty-James and Steve are fourteen. However, they are as burned-out and jaded as any war-ravaged adults. Rusty-James says casually, "I get annoyed when people want to kill me for some stupid little reason. Something big, and I don't mind it so much." This implies that others have wanted to kill him, and for various reasons; death threats mean nothing to him now. When threatened, he reacts without thinking about much other than how many supporters his enemy has brought with him.

Similarly, Rusty-James is jaded about sex and women. He treats Patty like an object, and when he goes to an X-rated movie with the Motorcycle Boy and Steve, he spends much of his time watching the other people in the theater, the Motorcycle Boy, and Steve, who is amazed at what's on the screen. He's seen so much of it before that the film seems unremarkable to him; he tells Steve, "I seen better."

Because his father is a drunk, Rusty-James is familiar with the effects of alcohol, and he has friends who use hard drugs like heroin; he stops over at a friend's house but leaves when he finds the friend is shooting up. "He was there, with some other people, but they were all spacey and nervous and dopey, doing horse." This is apparently a normal occurrence in his neighborhood; he reports it in the same tone anyone else would use to say, "They were home, but they were busy cleaning, so I left."

At times, Rusty-James gives the reader the sense that he wishes he could be a kid and that he resents the adults who have left him to grow up so fast. He claims to love his father although he doesn't like him, but in a telling incident, he shoves an old drunk man off the sidewalk because the old man is in his way. Although the old man is not his father, he could easily be; the reader senses that the anger he feels at the old man for blocking his way is really aimed at his father, for blocking his growth in life. As he points out, his father has never "done" anything to him, like beat him or abuse him; his father has simply done nothing: he drinks and reads and ignores his sons. What Rusty-James doesn't really understand, however, is that "doing nothing" is as harmful to children as physical abuse, and he has every right to be angry at his father.

Coach Ryan, who is friendly to Rusty-James, turns out to be unethical when he offers Rusty-James five dollars to beat up another boy. Rusty-James has never trusted him, because he thinks Ryan is impressed by Rusty-James's toughness and wants to gain from his reputation; he thinks Ryan wants to be friends with him in the same way that some one might like to own a mean and vicious dog because it will enhance his own status.

Mr. Harrigan, the guidance counselor, does not offer guidance at all but seems more like a warden. He doesn't make any effort to find out why Rusty-James acts the way he does but punishes him and eventually gives him an ultimatum: Rusty-James is going to be transferred to a school where they know how to deal with "his kind." Rusty-James says of Harrigan, "My mind went kind of blank. There was something about Mr. Harrigan that made my mind go kind of blank, even when he was swatting me with a board, like he had two or three times before."

Harrigan asks a typically adult question: "Don't you think it's time you gave some serious thought to your life?" Rusty-James thinks, "Well, I had to worry about money, and whether or not the old man would drink up his check before I got part of it, and whether or not the Motorcycle Boy would pick up and leave for good, and I had a cop itching to blow my brains out." These are all serious worries, and, ironically, Rusty-James's focus on them is what prevents him from thinking about his life the way society would want him to; he can't care about school or the normal youthful things because he's had these problems thrust upon him by irresponsible adults. Obviously, Harrigan is just spouting the adult authority figure "party line" instead of really trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

Cassandra is closer in age to Rusty-James than any other adults, but, like them, she's abdicated any real adult responsibility by following the Motorcycle Boy around and becoming a drug addict. She's a substitute teacher, but her behavior suggests that if and when she becomes a full-time teacher, she'll be just like Harrigan and Ryan, so steeped in her own problems that she's unable to help her young students toward learning, emotional health, and true maturity.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Rumble Fish, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Winters is a freelance writer.

Rumble Fish

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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 perform in the real world, in his monotone world of the river. Ironically, neither he nor the fish are permitted to complete this test. Rusty-James is there to watch. "I was at a dead run at the first shot, and almost to the river by the second. So I was there when they turned him over, and he was smiling, and the little rumble fish were flipping and dying around him, still too far from the river." This is an impressive image, reminiscent of the Viking funeral in Beau Geste (the name in French means beautiful, but empty, act), the larger-than-life hero and his totem dying together on the banks of that dark river.

The totemic relationship between the Motorcycle Boy and the rumble fish brings us to one last observation on the sustained imagery of the novel. There is in Rumble Fish a continued effort to imply animal surrogates for nearly all the main characters. Hinton had done this in other novels (Mark the lion, notably, in That Was Then, This Is Now), but there is in no other Hinton book the relentless identification of people with specific animals. Early on, Rusty-James notes that "the animals reminded me of people. Steve looked like a rabbit. He had... a face like a real sincere rabbit." This is a descriptive image, used once, but Hinton does not seem to want us to forget this identification. On the roof after the hubcap escapade Steve looks like a rabbit again, and, later, after his mother has gone into the hospital, he "looked like a sincere rabbit about to take on a pack of wolves."

The other characters have their own animal descriptors. The Motorcycle Boy "looked like a panther or something." When Steve shows his displeasure at something the Motorcycle Boy says, he looks like "a rabbit scowling at a panther." The picture of the Motorcycle Boy in the magazine "made him look like a wild animal out of the woods."

The Motorcycle Boy is, fittingly, associated with the panther, exotic and sleek, while Rusty-James is compared most often with a more familiar and domestic creature: a dog. He feels "the hairs of my neck starting to bristle, like a dog's." After he's nearly killed by muggers he makes "a grunt that sounded like a kicked dog." This identification is part of his self-image, and it is revealing to note that, among all the animals he could have chosen, he chooses the common, loyal, unremarkable dog. Even sadder is the animal the Motorcycle Boy assigns to him, the chameleon, which changes its very appearance to suit its environment and thus belongs everywhere, and nowhere.

Besides being graphic and descriptive (who can help picturing Steve as the sincere rabbit or the Motorcycle Boy as the sleek panther?), the association with animals reemphasizes the primacy of fate and destiny in the lives of the characters. What choice does an animal have in being what it is? Hinton's continued introduction of animal references also prefigures the final scene, where the Motorcycle Boy frees all the animals and casts his lot with the rumble fish.

At first glance the rumble fish seem to come out of nowhere. Their existence isn't even mentioned until the very end of the book. How is it that they are suddenly thrust into a position of such crucial importance, prominent enough to give the book its title?

The answer is that their role has been suggested all along, their existence predicted as surely as if Cassandra, the Motorcycle Boy's girlfriend (who is associated with cats, the animal symbol of prophecy), had gone into a white-eyed trance and begun raving about them. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, if she had. In Greek mythology Cassandra is given the gift of prophecy and then punished by Apollo, who ensures that nothing she says, no disaster she correctly predicts, will be believed by anyone who hears her. In Rumble Fish, where destiny is forever unalterable, the mythical punishment remains in effect.

Destiny and Biological Necessity There are characters in all the Hinton novels who appear to be victims of a destiny they are not able to escape. This destiny may be the product of an accident of birth or a quirk of society (or a combination of both) but whatever the cause, it is usually final, and often fatal. Dallas Winston in The Outsiders is doomed from the first time we meet him; he can't escape his fate because it is a part of himself. Neither, apparently, can Mark in That Was Then, This Is Now, although his case is a little less satisfactory. In her fourth book, Tex, the entire cast of characters lines up behind placards reading "Those Who Go and Those Who Stay"; once it's decided which they are (a gypsy fortune-teller may make the decision) their fate is sealed. "Will and fate," Travis asks himself in Taming the Star Runner, "Which one had the biggest say in your life?"

A similar situation exists in Rumble Fish. Rusty-James, whom Steve compares to "a ball in a pinball machine," has given up on his ability to make decisions about his life before the story even begins. Biff Wilcox wants to kill him; Patty wants to break up with him; nothing he can do about it. That's just the way things are. It is instructive to remember just how trivial the so-called causes of these two major rifts are. In the first case he is almost killed as a result of "something [he] said to Anita at school." Who's Anita, anyway? In the second case he loses Patty, someone he professes to love, over an incident at the lake that is of such importance that it occupies one full sentence in the book. Why doesn't he fight back? Why doesn't he even try to make his case with Patty?

He doesn't try because he has come to believe that it won't do any good. Things are what they are, and nothing he can do will change that.

Rusty-James does have aspirations, of course, but they involve magical transformations rather than effort on his part. It is his hope that he will someday be like the Motorcycle Boy, and he bases this hope on heredity. Biology is destiny for Rusty-James, or at least he hopes it is.

"We look just like each other," I said.


"Me an' the Motorcycle Boy."


"Yeah, we do."

The Motorcycle Boy was the coolest person in the whole world. Even if he hadn't been my brother he would have been the coolest person in the whole world.

And I was going to be just like him.

The irony, unfortunately, is that he succeeds. Biology becomes destiny, although it is necessarily an imperfect copy. Steve makes the connection in the two frame chapters at the beginning and end of the book:

"Rusty-James … you gave me a real scare when I first saw you. I thought I'd flipped out. You know who I thought you were for a second? …. You know who you look just like?

"I never thought you would, but you do. You don't sound like him, though. Your voice is completely different. It's a good thing you never went back. You'd probably give half the people in the neighborhood a heart attack."

Belonging and Being Alone Rusty-James, the tough kid with the bad habit of getting attached to people, is one of Hinton's most ingenuous, most likable creations. He is indeed as loyal as a pet dog, and equally incapable of guile. He can't even play poker because (though he doesn't agree) his friends can read his every emotion in his face. It is therefore all the more tragic when he is transfigured (in an operation only partly successful, like a botched job done by a mad scientist in a horror movie) into the cold, featureless persona of the Motorcycle Boy. All he ever wanted was to belong. Somewhere. Anywhere.

His need for other people, his yearning to belong somewhere, permeates the consciousness of the book. Hinton's characters have always had a bad start at belonging—most of them have dead, absent, or ineffectual parents—but for none of them is the need for a place in life, amongst other people, as strong as it is for Rusty-James. For Rusty-James it is almost a matter of life and death.

I can't stand being by myself. That is the only thing I am honest-to-God scared of.

"I don't like bein' by myself. I mean, man, I can't stand it. Makes me feel tight, like I'm being choked all over."

There is an ostensible explanation for this fear. It is given by the Motorcycle Boy, in his sometimes exasperating, emotionless monotone. "When you were two years old, and I was six, Mother decided to leave. She took me with her. The old man went on a three-day drunk when he found out. He's told me that was the first time he ever got drunk. I imagined he liked it. Anyway, he left you alone in the house for those three days. We didn't live where we do now. It was a very large house.... I suppose you developed your fear of being alone then."

A two-year-old left in the house alone for three days could develop a great many things, including death. The Motorcycle Boy's explanation is a little too pat, a little too convenient. It was a mistake on Hinton's part to imagine that we needed this kind of traumatic antecedent for the pervasive yearning to belong that exists in Rusty-James's character. The fact of his mother's abandonment of them would have been quite enough; Rusty-James succeeds on his own, in the strength and pure longing of his voice, to convince us of the impact this abandonment has had on him.

The reverse of belonging is, naturally, being alone, and there is no one more alone than the Motorcycle Boy, living in a glass bubble which Rusty-James inherits at the end of the book. At the risk of being redundant, we must once again mention the irony: Rusty-James, whose very nature is built around the need for people (he makes lists of people he likes, when he's alone, because "it makes me feel good to think of people I like—not so alone") is led by his reverence for the Motorcycle Boy to the precise condition that terrifies him. He is truly and finally alone.

The Perfect Knight and the Misfit Which brings us to the Motorcycle Boy. The firstborn son of a morganatic marriage between a mysterious, absent, movie-actress mother and a cerebral, formal, lawyer-turned-drunkard father, the Motorcycle Boy comes stocked with all manner of mythic associations. His name, "like a title or something," his ability to crack Biff Wilcox's wrist "like a matchstick," his inherited imperfection, his profound and eerie effect on everyone he encounters, everything about the Motorcycle Boy is of unearthly stature. When the Motorcycle Boy is expelled from school, Rusty-James wants to know why.

"How come you got expelled?" I asked.

"Perfect tests."

You could always feel the laughter around him, just under the surface, but this time it came to the top and he grinned. It was a flash, like lightning, far off.

"I handed in perfect semester tests."

Everything about the Motorcycle Boy is preternatural, even his laughter, especially his laughter. "As far as I could tell," Rusty-James says, "he never paid any attention to anything except to laugh at it."

"That cat is a prince, man," says the black pool player during his match with the Motorcycle Boy. "He is royalty in exile." This summation is echoed by the boys' father, in his "perfect knight" speech, recalling the archetypal perfect knight, Sir Galahad, from the Holy Grail legend. Galahad is also gifted with uncommon vision, with the ability to see into the secrets of things, "those things that the heart of mortal man cannot conceive nor tongue relate." Like the Motorcycle Boy, the character of Sir Galahad is often perceived to be "a cardboard saint, [whose] austere virtue excludes humanity." Galahad succeeds in his quest for the Holy Grail—only a perfect knight can accomplish this—but the Motorcycle Boy's quest is directionless, his goal unidentified, and whether his smile at the end is an indication of the success or the failure of his private quest is open to debate.

The implications, for both the Motorcycle Boy and Rusty-James, of their father's "perfect knight" speech are worth considering. "Russell-James," the father says, "every now and then a person comes along who has a different view of the world than does the usual person.... [The Motorcycle Boy] is merely miscast in a play. He would have made a perfect knight, in a different century, or a very good pagan prince in a time of heroes. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to do anything and finding nothing he wants to do."

After this speech Rusty-James says, in his wide-eyed, great-hearted innocence, once again, "I think I'm gonna look just like him when I get older. Whaddya think?" His father is shocked by this pronouncement, and looks at him as if seeing him for the first time. What he sees startles him, and then reduces him to pity. "You poor child," he says. "You poor baby."

The flip side of the perfect knight is the misfit. The father's "perfect knight" speech could just as easily be called his "misfit" speech, and it applies to Rusty-James as well. He, too, is miscast in the play, born in the wrong era. He, too, is out of touch with the times, though his options are fewer and his "time of heroes" is more recent. With typical misunderstanding, Rusty-James locates this heroic time with the era of the gangs, just recently passed, which he imagines would have provided him with meaning, belonging. He even romanticizes that time out of its own chronology; for him the heroic era was "a long time ago, when there were gangs."

His misapprehension of the reality of the gang era doesn't make him any less the misfit in the present time. The lot of the misfit is never a pleasant one. In Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" there is a chilling, murderous character known only as The Misfit. There is nothing particularly heroic about The Misfit; the only startling thing about him is the utter amoral-ity and the cold expressionlessness with which he goes about the business of murdering, one by one, the members of a family whose car has broken down. At the end of the story The Misfit engages the grandmother of the family in an extended, almost overrational explanation of why he lives as he does in a world where the possibility of redemption, of meaning, is so uncertain. The grandmother, who is doddering in and out of reality, mistakes him in a visionary moment for one of her children and she reaches out to touch him. He recoils in horror and kills her. The last words of the story, spoken in a final attempt at self-justification, by The Misfit, are "It's no real pleasure in life."

The Motorcycle Boy couldn't have said it any better.

The Problem of the Motorcycle Boy Steve says of the Motorcycle Boy, "[H]e is the only person I have ever met who is like somebody out of a book. To look like that, and be good at everything, and all that." Thus does one of the book's characters state the main problem about the Motorcycle Boy: People in books should not themselves appear to come out of books; that's too much of a jump for any character to make, and the Motorcycle Boy, who doesn't make the river at the book's end, doesn't make the jump into fully realized existence either. He's just too distant, too idealized, too detached, and finally, too inhuman to be taken seriously as a character. Robert Berkvist, in his otherwise not very probing review of Rumble Fish in the New York Times Book Review, makes the entirely accurate observation that the Motorcycle Boy "clanks through the story like a symbol never quite made flesh."

If Hinton thought to introduce some humanity into the character by means of the color blindness (and it is not my belief that she did), the result is quite the opposite. His color blindness, along with his occasional deafness and his general other-worldliness, only serve to set him off further from the rest of humanity. His detachment is so total that he ignores the person closest to him, the person who truly cares about him, his brother, Rusty-James.

Numerous times in the novel Rusty-James makes statements like "one of the few times he ever paid any attention to me," "he never paid much attention to me," "in case the Motorcycle Boy forgot I was with him," and "the Motorcycle Boy was watching me, amused but not interested." The key is that given the depth of feeling the reader has built up around the character of Rusty-James, we should hate this Motorcycle Boy character for the way he treats his hero-struck younger brother. In fact, though, we don't feel much about the Motorcycle Boy, pro or con. We don't feel much because he's not real; it would be like trying to raise an emotion about a lounge chair or a suitcase.

There is the matter of his speech, for one thing. How are we to deal with a character who talks like this? "It's a bit of a burden to be Robin Hood, Jesse James and the Pied Piper. I'd just as soon stay a neighborhood novelty, if it's all the same to you. It's not that I couldn't handle a larger scale, I just plain don't want to."

Hinton tries to have Rusty-James explain this away by saying, "Sometimes, usually on the streets, he talked normal. Then sometimes he'd go on like he was reading out of a book, using words and sentences nobody ever used when they were just talking." This just doesn't wash; it's too unreal. The only useful purpose to this kind of speech is that it makes the heredity case once again; it links the Motorcycle Boy with his father, who talks the same way. Compare the father's quizzical "What strange lives you two lead" with the Motorcycle Boy's "What a funny situation …. I wonder what I'm doing here," after Rusty-James is injured in the mugging scene. (A few pages earlier, when Rusty-James thought he was dying, he thinks, "I pictured my father at my funeral saying, 'What a strange way to die.'" Rusty-James has a talent for capturing the essence of character.)

In Hinton's defense, the problem she bit off when she chose to create the Motorcycle Boy is a problem that not many authors have solved well. The problem of the Motorcycle Boy is the problem of trying to create a larger-than-life character—the saint, the seer, the mystic—and at the same time animating that character with the common spark of humanity we all recognize. (She makes a better choice in Taming the Star Runner by placing the symbolic weight on the horse, a character she doesn't have to worry about making human.) Not many writers are able to pull this off. In recent American writing an example of one who tried mightily (and ultimately failed) is J. D. Salinger with his character Seymour Glass (another idolized older brother). Seymour Glass, who appears in a number of Salinger's books, finally becomes such a prisoner of his spiritual detachment and doomed purity that the reader can't wait for him to do himself in and get it over with. Like Sir Galahad (or David Bowie's Major Tom), Seymour ascends so far into the stratosphere that it becomes clear that he is never coming back down.

Ordinarily this should prove fatal to a novel, a major character who fails to break through two dimensions into at least the suggestion of a rounded existence, but not so in Rumble Fish. Rumble Fish succeeds in spite of the Motorcycle Boy because Rumble Fish is not the Motorcycle Boy's story at all (despite Hinton's comment that "the Motorcycle Boy haunted me" and that he was the reason she forced herself to come back to the book, after it had been put aside for so long). It's Rusty-James's story, actually, and from the point of view of the reader's allegiance it is the Motorcycle Boy who plays squire to Rusty-James's knight, and not the other way around.

We can forgive the clanking of the Motorcycle Boy because our attention is focused on Rusty-James. The spark of humanity that is missing in the Motorcycle Boy is a roaring fire in Rusty-James, and it is our concern with this conflagration that gives the book its impact. We imagine that the main thrust of the story is about the Motorcycle Boy, but in this we are fooled (intellectually, not emotionally) by a sleight of hand. As we have seen, upon closer inspection, all the themes of the book, even those having to do with perfection and perfect knighthood, are concerns of the character of Rusty-James as well as the Motorcycle Boy. If we sometimes cringe at the behavior of the Motorcycle Boy, we never look away, because in fact it is never the Motorcycle Boy we are truly looking at. What we are looking at is a distorted mirror, "a distorted glass" reflection of Rusty-James.

In the end we respond to Rumble Fish in a much deeper way than we do to That Was Then, This Is Now. It's an emotional, almost a physical response, as opposed to the more rational, intellectual reaction that the other book prompted. Whatever its defects, whatever its ambitions only partly achieved, Rumble Fish works as a novel. In its appeal to the mythic element in life, in its living, breathing creation of the pilgrim character of Rusty-James, the book works. And there is a name usually given to this kind of success: It is called art.

Source: Jay Daly, "Rumble Fish," in Presenting S. E. Hinton, Twayne, 1987, pp. 68-84.


Critical Overview