Book Reviewed: Rumble Fish, by S.E. Hinton
Technically, I've read Rumble Fish before. However, that was ten years ago. I didn't remember a single thing about the book except, strangely enough, a scene where the older brother pours wine over his younger brother's wounds. I have no idea why that scene sticks with me, but I find I can rarely help what memories I carry from books.
After re-reading Tex for the bajillionth time earlier this year, I knew I'd eventually get around to reading this one again. It just took me a while to get there. Rumble Fish is Hinton's shortest book (out of a career of short books, mind you), so it only took me just over an hour to finish. It's not my favorite Hinton book by a long shot, but it had enough of her trademark moves to keep me happy and occupied the entire time.
I think Rumble Fish might be Hinton's least hopeful book. All of her books have really bittersweet endings, where things are left as complicated and imperfect as they began, just in a different way. But his one is particularly painful, as it can't even get up to the "sweet" part of bittersweet. The plot is simple and old hat for Hinton. Our narrator, young Rusty-James is tough as hell, a little criminal in the making. He looks up to his mysterious and legendary older brother, Motorcycle Boy (real name never revealed), who comes in and out of Rusty-James's life and never shows any real affection to him. Rusty-James gets in a fight at the beginning of the book, and the Motorcycle Boy shows up just in time to help him out and take him home. Later, Motorcycle Boy saves Rusty-James and Rusty-James's nerdy friend Steve, but only after dropping an information bomb on his little brother's head earlier in the evening. It's not the kind of loving but troubled sibling relationship we see in The Outsiders or Tex; it's much more destructive and dark.
In the books final pages, something happens that changes Rusty-James's life, but not necessarily for the better. Hinton really ratchets up the violence in the final third of her books, but this one seems particularly devastating because it doesn't lead to any kind of foreseeable good. Unlike the shooting in Tex that heals the wounds between the two brothers or the violence-is-bad lesson of Outsiders, we don't get a chance to see any real impact on Rusty-James. The book's frame, which takes place in the future, shows that his life must be somewhat better. But there doesn't seem to be much in lessons learned here. It's all just very sad.
This book would be a kind of exercise in the miserable if it weren't for Hinton's most laudable talent: her narrators. She pins complex stories on very specific viewpoints, a viewpoint that often lacks perspective and class. Her narrators are often out of the loop when it comes to other characters' emotions and motives, and that's what makes her books so good. Having these kind of unreliable narrators really works to the advantage of the story she's trying to tell. These are stories about wayward kids learning there's a world outside of themselves, and this broken, self-absorbed narration works perfectly to this kind of lesson. I don't know how she does it. Rusty-James is a little stupid, totally unaware of his surroundings, and even more unaware of himself. Yet, it's easy for the reader to sympathize with him completely. Hinton knows how to make the unlikeable likeable.
The character of Motorcycle Boy is also an interesting creation. He's unlike any of Hinton's other violent, charismatic young men. You might compare him to Dally from The Outsiders or Mark from That Was Then, This Is Now, but he never emerges as a sympathetic figure like those two (though admittedly, Mark is really hard to love by the end of his book). However, he's still fascinating. He's such a bizarre and utterly alone human being, and nothing can really change him. Making him partially deaf and colorblind is a smart move on Hinton's part, because the character is himself so unable to live in a world with any kind of sensual complexity or regard for others. He's part of a world that isn't ours, but he's largely to blame for his own problems. We occasionally see a nice moment from him - when he saves Rusty-James from a fight or when he tells Rusty-James about an important and formative event from their childhood, for example. But he's never quite good enough, and therefore it's no surprise what happens to him in the end. He's smart and obviously has a complex inner life, but he also fails to make connections. In Hinton's world, this is where he goes wrong. It's her characters who make connections with other people that eventually become heroic, and Motorcycle Boy never does that. Learning to love and live with other people is what leads the soul's salvation in her books, and it's what makes this book particularly hard to read, since that never quite happens.
So all in all, a decent read. It's not my favorite Hinton book, but then again, it's hard to beat Tex. In fact, this book made me want to go back and reread Tex again. God, that's a great book.