S.E. Hinton: Rumble Fish versus The Outsiders

Hinton in 1968, the year 'The Outsiders' was published. Smart, hot and pigtails.

Hinton in 1968, the year ‘The Outsiders’ was published. Smart, hot and pigtails.

“Raymond Chandler wrote about the man he wanted to be. Dashiell Hammet wrote about the man he was frightened he’d become.”

-James Ellroy.

I first read The Outsiders somewhere around the age of ten. My mother had taught me to read early, after I badgered her about it. The Outsiders was often set as a school book for fourteen year olds so as a self-starter, I probably wasn’t that far off the mark.   

Hinton gets it right at the first line on page one when she introduces us to her protagonist, Pony Boy Curtis: “When I came out of the darkened movie theatre and into the bright afternoon sun, I was thinking about two things; Paul Newman and a ride home.”

Hinton, a sixteen year old girl who published under the initials S.E. because her publisher thought readers wouldn’t believe a teenaged girl could be considered any authority on the interior lives of teen-aged boys, unravels her characters through crisis after crisis like she’s paring the skin off an orange with a knife.

The book concludes with a gang fight which lets everybody involved ‘blow off some steam’. The three brothers at the core of the book, protagonist Pony Boy, Steve and Soda-Pop, all confirm their love for each other in the feudal way and the gang-at-large coalesces around them as brothers-in-arms.

The two books that followed The Outsiders were Tex and That was Then, This is Now. Tex deals with a young man coming to terms with his absent father, while That was Then, This is Now is the story of a friendship that goes bad over drugs. I enjoyed both, but neither had the same sort of octane rating.

When I finally got to Rumble Fish, I was hungry for it.

I didn’t like the taste. To start with, the protagonist, Rusty James, was a bonehead and a thug. Furthermore, the benign guardian figures everybody loved in The Outsiders were absent. The father of Rusty and his brother, the Motorcycle Boy, was a reasonably benign alcoholic, but had little impact or influence on the lives of his sons. Most of the plot twists in the novel were not occasions which brought out the best in any of the characters, either; everything with Rusty James felt aborted and desultory.

The Motorcycle Boy is the novel’s Paul Newman come-to-life. Everyone is in awe of him; when in high school, he had an affair with his English teacher and swanned around on stolen motorcycles with the air of a savant. The truth was, he had some kind of partial brain-damage from the accidents he’d had on stolen motorcycles and as a result, saw everything in literal black-and-white.

Unlike Ponyboy Curtis, Rusty James gets his wish; he is able to get inside his hero and literally become him in the eyes of others. The transformation is a brutal, painful one, bought about by a needless suffering inflicted on both him and his brother by a bully-boy policeman. The novel’s dénouement is poetic and brutal, telling its story through the final violent collision of its principal elements.

The Outsiders was Hinton’s first novel; the way she wanted it to be. Rumble Fish was the way she came to see it was. It was something she came to accept over the arc of those four seminal books. After many years, I was able to accept it, too. I still read Rumble Fish now, every five years or so. I’ve come to see the beauty in how it is, instead of feeling resentment for the way things steadfastly refuse to be.

Post-script

Stay away from the films, especially Rumble Fish. Mickey Rourke is no Motorcycle Boy and Coppola punked out and changed the ending.

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