There are a lot of books about troubled youth. The problem with most of them is that they don't go far enough—bad kids are just those who are different and maybe sullen, bad kids are just those who've experienced great pain, bad kids are just kids who argue with their teachers and maybe get sent to detention for starting a fight.
Rusty-James, the 14-year-old narrator of Rumble Fish is really a bad kid. His dad is a drunk, his brother the Motorcycle Boy is a renowned street fighter, and Rusty-James himself plays pool for money, smokes, drinks, cusses, and routinely engages in gang violence. His reputation as a bad kid is something he protects with his fists and his big mouth.
But the point of S. E. Hinton's novel isn't to glorify the bad boy. Rusty-James explains the events of his life with the matter-of-fact attitude of one who hasn't known anything else, but the events speak for themselves. Though he doesn't care about the things his brother and dad care about, like books, he speaks with an unselfconscious eloquence that belies his swagger.
The story is simple. Rusty-James is a hooligan who doesn't care about anything besides being tough, and he thinks his older brother feels the same way. The Motorcycle Boy has a reputation as a real tough guy, but what Rusty-James learns by stages is that the violence of the urban Oklahoma gangs is something his brother now detests.
We follow Rusty-James in his fight with Biff Wilcox, on an excursion into the downtown area where he and his friend Steve are nearly killed by thugs in an alleyway, to a party where he cheats on his girlfriend with another girl, and to the final climax when the Motorcycle Boy breaks into a pet shop just to free the animals.
As the violence escalates, Rusty-James becomes more and more certain that it is his only hope of redemption. But redemption isn't something he has any claim to, and it takes the death of the Motorcycle Boy (as well as his own incurable injury) to show him that fighting is an end in itself, and a brutal dead-end at that.
Throughout the novel, Rusty-James simply forgets what he doesn't want to remember. His injuries, his crimes, the crimes committed against him—he pushes out of his head and goes on. In the end, he's alone on a beach years later when Steve sees him and wants to reminisce: but Rusty-James won't reminisce because he hasn't been able to forget in the first place.
The end of Rumble Fish is undeniably bleak. Hinton doesn't give us any hope that the antihero has grown up in the sense of having moved on from the past, only in the sense that he's abandoned it. The book ends in California, where Rusty-James's mother lives, but she's not with him or anywhere in view. He's alone, tormented by what he can't really leave behind.
So why read such a book? There's no explicit moral, most of the characters don't change, and Rusty-James reaches 20 years not much the wiser. Which is exactly why this book is so good. Hinton doesn't allow us the illusion that the ability to overcome one's own past and evil nature is hidden within us. Redemption isn't for everyone, and that stark truth is one we need to hear. Rumble Fish proclaims it without sentiment or artifice.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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