Poverty Although Steve and Rusty-James agree that their neighborhood is not "the slums," they note that it's "crummy." They live in a poor area. Steve's family is better off because his father apparently has a job, but Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy have to scavenge, steal, and hope their father won't drink up all of his welfare check before they get a piece of it. When Rusty-James is hungry, he finds some sardines, crackers, and milk in the kitchen, remarking, "I ain't picky. I like about anything." The reader gets the sense that there was not much else in the house, other than his father's bottles of "sneaky pete."
Alienation and Abandonment "For a tough kid I had a bad habit of getting attached to people," Rusty-James says in the beginning of the book, and as the story progresses, the reader finds out why. Abandoned by his mother as a toddler, left alone by his father for three days while his father went on a drunken binge, he learned early to fear solitude and at the same time to be wary of other people. His biggest fear, throughout the book, is that the Motorcycle Boy will leave for good.
The only time in the book when Rusty-James says he feels truly alive is when he, Steve, and the Motorcycle Boy cross the river and find themselves among crowds of people, cruising cars and listening to music. Rusty-James says, "I couldn't explain how I feel. Jivey, juiced up, just alive. The lights, I mean, and all the people." In contrast, nothing else in the book causes him to vary from his heavy emotional tone. Going to the lake with friends or making out with his girlfriend don't provide the pleasure that it seems they should; these are all just things to do to fill in time.
One of the most interesting aspects of Rusty-James' s alienation and emotional homelessness is that no one in their apartment has his own room or even his own bed. The apartment has a cot and a mattress, and Rusty-James, the Motorcycle Boy, and his father sleep on either of them. "It didn't matter which," Rusty-James says. The reader is given the sense that they don't need three places to sleep because it's very rare that all three of them are home at the same time. There's no comfort in their house, very little food, and no stable routine. Their father is not interested in their lives, except for feeling mild curiosity about their exploits, and is completely emotionally detached from them, never providing meals, guidance, or a stable presence. As a parent, he's a total failure, so that, although he's physically present, he has emotionally abandoned both his sons.
Although Rusty-James's father has done this, Rusty-James still loves him, "sort of." He decides that he loves Patty, the Motorcycle Boy, and Steve, "sort of." In the end, his father proves worthless, Patty leaves him, the Motorcycle Boy is killed, and Steve decides that he's had enough of the rough and dangerous life and chooses to turn away from Rusty-James. Rusty-James is left utterly alone, just as he was as a young boy.
Death in Life Everyone in the book, with the exception of Steve, is dead on the inside—trapped, stagnant, going nowhere. The Motorcycle Boy is doomed, "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," according to his father. In addition, he's now partially deaf and color-blind as a result of all his fighting and motorcycle crashes, disabilities...
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that further cut him off from others and limit his potential. He is not interested in overcoming these problems. He almost seems to enjoy the splendid isolation they give him.
Rusty-James is trapped by his blind admiration for the Motorcycle Boy and never gives a thought to his future or to his past, and his awareness of the present is like an animal's, not involving any reflection or thought. He comments that he has never been good at school, and, indeed, his consciousness seems, at times, almost like that of a zombie. When the Motorcycle Boy tells him that he is afraid to be alone because he was frightened by being abandoned as a little child, Rusty-James looks at him stupidly. He says, "What he was saying didn't make any sense to me. Trying to understand it was like trying to see through fog." He seems to spend most of his time in this fog, just getting through the days, never really thinking too deeply about anything.
Their father is also emotionally detached and dead, interested in his next drink, but not particularly in his children. He occasionally shows flashes of understanding, as when he describes the Motorcycle Boy's character, but usually regards his sons with utter detachment; for example, when Rusty-James is wounded in the knife fight, he only remarks mildly, "What strange lives you two lead." Instead of remarking on the wound or encouraging Rusty-James to seek medical care for it, he gives Rusty-James ten dollars and then asks the Motorcycle Boy if he had a nice trip to California. This makes it clear that no matter what happens, the boys are basically on their own. Their father is unable, or unwilling, to help them or provide any guidance.
Usually a symbol of life and movement, the river in Rumble Fish is the opposite, as stagnant and doomed as the characters. Early in the book, Rusty-James throws his cigarette butt into the water, remarking that it's so full of trash that it will make no difference. Later, he comments on the horrible smell that emanates from the river, a result of pollution. The fact that the Motorcycle Boy decides to release the fighting fish into this river is ironic— they will likely die as soon as they hit the filthy water. It's a grand gesture but a senseless one, and like the fish, these boys will never escape the evils of their environment.