Critical Review by Jane Powell
SOURCE: "Urban Guerrillas," in The Times Literary Supplement, April 2, 1976, p. 388.
In the following excerpt, Powell faults Rumble Fish for lacking a protagonist who, like those of The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now, possesses superior wit and insight that enable him to rise above the violence and turmoil of his surroundings. Rumble Fish's Rusty-James, Powell argues, is victimized by his environment, and his victimization creates a pervasive air of failure and despair which diminishes the novel.
S. E. Hinton's Rumble Fish was disappointing. Hooked on Ms. Hinton since I discovered how popular The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now are with adolescents, this came as a let-down. The earlier two books also deal with the American delinquent scene, but in both the central character has an intelligence and sensitivity which set him apart from his peers.
He involves himself in desperate situations largely out of loyalty to others and at the end, having seen close friends destroyed by violence or drugs, is left wiser and sadder. The detachment of the central figure is lost in Rumble Fish. This time the narrator, Rusty-James, is a product (and victim) of his environment, and the world is a grey, sordid and destructive place. The bright values of literature and loyalty have faded, the best friend is a minor figure who lapses into gross insensitivity, and the book is filled with failures, drunks and junkies. In the foreground is the doomed Motorcycle Boy, the narrator's brother and hero, a near-zombie as a result of many crashes on stolen bikes. Rumble fish are Siamese fighting fish—"If you leaned a mirror against the bowl they'd kill themselves fighting their own reflection". The Motorcycle Boy is shot dead as he carries the bowl towards the river. Like the fish, he's in a bowl, cut off from the real world by deafness. Rusty-James has always wanted to be like his brother and that's how he turns out. The narrative is retrospective—the boy is reminded of things he'd like to forget when he meets an old friend—and this perspective emphasizes Rusty-James's hopelessness: there can't even be a glimmer of hope for the future.