Saturday, February 9

Rumble Fish


by S. E. Hinton
Delacorte 1975

Did I really reread this? Did I need to? Man, this thing didn't age well.

Rusty-James thinks he's the the world on a string. Kid brother to the infamous Motorcycle Boy, RJ walks around honestly believe he has his older brother's smarts, looks and charisma to run the gangs of their midwest town. But RJ isn't any of those things, and where his brother used the gangs as a creative foil for his twisted genius, and then moved to disband them, RJ thinks he's inherited some sort of crown that allows him to be cock of the walk.

Motorcycle Boy left to see the sea, to expand his horizons, but two weeks later he's back. He saves RJ from a knife fight (probably not the first time he's bailed out the kid) and spends his days reading and drifting off into a half-deaf semi-trance. There's a local cop who doesn't like Moto Boy and threats all around that one of these days he's going to bring him down because the young punks in town look up to him. It doesn't matter which side you're on, when you see the Buddha on the road, kill it.

The book is framed with RJ on a beach in California running into an old friend Stevie from back in the day. They've both escaped the confines of their small town lives -- Stevie went to school and was planning on becoming a teacher, RJ fresh from the reformatory has finally made it to the beach his older brother never saw. In talking to Stevie RJ is forced to remember and relive those last days five years earlier when his brother was gunned down while setting free the animals in the pet shop. It was a last, desperate act of a person who was so smart he "could have done anything, but nothing interested him" as his drunken father points out. The curse of the big fish in the little pond (or in this case, the Siamese fighting fish in a separated tank). At the end, once RJ has recalled it all he tries desperately to forget. But he cannot, and that's the burden he carries.

Okay, aside from the dated references and slang, two things really stand out: first, the movie Francis Ford Coppola made out of this book is both brilliant and such a brilliant adaptation of this story that it practically eclipses it in relevance; second, are there any kids out there who are going to care about RJ enough to want to finish this book?

Seriously, RJ is a tragic figure in that he hasn't got a clue but he gives the reader all the clues they need to know that he's an idiot. The Motorcycle Boy is only mythic in the way he's viewed by his little brother; aside from being a pacifist with a death wish it's hard to get the read on his genius everyone else sees in him. As a picture of gang life in Tulsa the thing reads like a throwback to West Side Story, only without any social commentary. It's difficult to understand why this book has premained popular -- unless it's because it's short, has entered the YA cannon, and reluctant boy readers will read anything that has fighting as it's focal point.

That said, the movie that Coppola made out of this film almost justifies the book's continued existence. I could talk about this film for days because what FFC did was locate the horrible truth that lay at the heart of the book, that is the secret heart of all stagnant life in America. The movie is about time, wasted time, stopped time, putting in time, doing time, passing time, all the problems an active soul encounters when there is nothing but time. Rusty James feels his time has come, the Motorcycle Boy has come to the end of his time, and everyone else is traped in time but is too blind to notice. Coppola makes all this time with time-lapse photography of clouds passing, clocks that speed up, a giant clock face on a truck with no hands on it... one could argue that it isn't subtle, but it's so artfully shot (in black and white, to match the Moto Boy's colorblindness) and poetically rendered that it plays like a running gag in a city that time seems to have forgotten.

I never thought much of the book until I saw the movie, saw what was possible with Hinton's blank canvas, and now I canot read the book with those images burned into my head.
Movies can certainly color a reader's impression of a book they haven't read, but it takes one hell of a movie to supplant all previous images if the book was read first. I'm not about to suggest that the book shouldn't be read, despite my misgivings after this recent read, but I wonder if it's passed its relevancy phase and is moving on into period piece curio.

I know there are plenty of good books turned into good movies, and good books turned into bad movies, but are there any other films out there that turn sub-par books into cinematic masterpieces?
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