T.C. Boyle is a famous American novelist with many accolades to his name. Amongst his noted work is a collection of short stories called Greasy Lake and Other Stories (1985), which confronts the doubts, insecurities, and issues that were faced by the people in America during the 1960s. This Penlighten article gives a summary and analysis for the title story "Greasy Lake".
Super Master of His Art!
T.C. Boyle has received many awards for his work, which include the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988 and six O. Henry Awards.
T.C. Boyle is a celebrated American novelist whose work addresses a wide variety of issues pertaining to society, and its interactions and its effect on situations and perceptions. He is skillful at presenting the conflicts of human nature and society in a satirical, easy-to-approach manner, which could be accessed by readers from any background. His in-depth knowledge of the social issues pertaining to his time, made his novels and short stories easy to relate to. In his collection, Greasy Lake and Other Stories (1985), the title story of “Greasy Lake” focuses on the conflicts of three 19-year olds, set in the 1960s, between their perceived self-image and the true self within.
The story begins with the narrator talking about a time when being rebellious was in vogue, and the stereotypical image of the greaser lifestyle―torn leather jackets, slouching, apathy, drinking, rock and roll, and drug abuse―was the ‘cool’ way of life. On the third day of their summer vacation, he is out with his friends Digby, who was a Cornell attendee, and Jeff, who planned to quit school to pursue either painting, music, or become a head-shop proprietor. They set out in the night, swaying to the “Toots and the Maytals” and seeking some thrills. After a night of partying and vandalism, at 2:00 am in the morning, they decide to head to Greasy Lake.
Description of Setting
When the narrator describes the Lake, he tells us that the Indians referred to it as ‘The Wakan’, which meant ‘spiritual’ or ‘divine’. He tells us that the lake was once clear, and the sights, beautiful. But now it was an image of filth and murkiness, with broken glass, beer cans, and charred remains of bonfires lining the shore. A ravaged island, hundred yards from the shore, seemed as if it was destroyed and repeatedly bombed by many a low-flying aircraft.
Focal Scene between Main Characters and the ‘Greaser’
Upon reaching their destination, they notice an abandoned chopper and a mint condition, blue ‘57 Chevy. They assumed it belonged to their friend Tony Lovett and parked behind him in order to get a few laughs and a peek at his lady friend. Instead, when they get out of the car, the narrator has the first ominous feeling of something going wrong, when he loses his car keys, followed by the realization that the man was not their friend, but an angry ‘greaser‘. In what ensues, the greaser attacks the three ‘bad boys’, and in the heat of the moment, the narrator picks up his tire iron and lands a blow on the man. When he falls, the three friends are unsure if he was alive or dead. Just then, the lady gets down from the car, throwing accusations at them. In their excited, primal stage, Digby, Jeff, and the narrator all attack the girl in an attempt to rape her, but are stopped midway when approaching headlights shine on them. All three try to flee the scene, and the narrator ends up in the filthy lake.
While waiting in fear, he hears the greaser wake up in a rage, and he along with two other blond guys (who had arrived in the car) start looking for him and his mates. And in all the chaos, he is horrified by the discovery of a dead body behind him in the lake. After a few curses and extreme vandalism of the Bel Air by the scorned greaser, the couple and the two men eventually part ways. The three “wanna-be bad boys” leave their hiding spot and head towards the car. On finding the car keys, they all realize in some way that this is not what they had bargained for when they took up their ‘greaser’ ways, and they all looked forward to returning to the safety and comfort of their homes. While leaving, two women on drugs arrive in a Mustang looking for their friend “Al“. The three companions keep quiet, knowing that these women might be referring to the dead body in the lake. When asked if they wanted to ‘party’ with the girls, Digby politely refused, and they left them behind in their drug-influenced state.
- This short story is set in 1960s’ America, torn between a waging war and shifting morals and ideals. Amidst this chaotic change, many teenagers are stuck between what they want to be and what they were. This pushes them either into rebellion or conforming to the change around. The three characters wanted to appear cool and tough, with a “We don’t care for anything” attitude.
- Along with this, the Greasy Lake, in itself, is an important part of what the author is trying to convey. The lake is described as once being sacred and clean, but now an image of filth and damage. This could be a reflection on the characters in the story who were once innocent, but now tainted by their dangerous ways. It may also symbolize how being in the murky waters in a way baptized their minds and soul, and how they emerged as new beings who were now unsure of their ‘bad boy’ ways.
- Digby seems to be the leader, while the narrator and Jeff seem to be conformists.
- The characters are described as teenage rebels who enjoy the ‘greaser’ way of life, with dangerous thrills and spills.
- Although the narrator keeps making references to their bad-boy ways, certain details seem to contradict the same, like their college educations and musical preference for the ‘Toots and the Maytals’, a reggae band much unlike the rock and roll they say they enjoy.
- The characters want to pursue all the rebellious ways without having to bear the burden of the same. They want the comfort of their homes and money, and not the danger that encompasses their lifestyle choices. For example, the narrator uses the tire iron to attack the greaser the same way he had seen it occur many times in the movies, but he was also afraid that he might have killed the man, which is not what he had intended.
Bruce Springsteen’s Song: The title is taken from a Bruce Springsteen song called, “Spirit in the Night”, which describes a similar fun night out that doesn’t end so well for some. Boyle has taken this idea, and put his own dark twist with an in-depth view into human nature.
Wakan: The ‘Wakan’ is a word taken from the Sioux language, which means ‘spiritual’ or ‘divine’. This is used to describe how the lake used to be and doubles as a reference to the characters, who were once pure, but now tainted by their choices.
Toots and the Maytals: Contrary to their stated preference for rock and roll, the characters are said to enjoy this reggae band. This might be a reference to their conflicting ideals.
André Gide: He was a famous French author and Nobel Prize Laureate, who wrote about human conditions. One of his focuses was internal conflict, which may be a subtle hint left by the author about the real moral of his story.
’57 Chevy, Mustang, and Bel Air: At that time, the Chevy and the Mustang were muscle cars, symbolizing style and power. The references maybe reflect the emphasis on what was ‘in’ back then, and what the characters were attracted to. But the Bel Air they owned conflicted with whom they wanted to be.
William Westmoreland and the Battle of Khe Sanh: Westmoreland was an army General during the Vietnam War, whose controversial attack on Khe Sanh led to him being removed from his ranks. The act of mistaking the angry greaser for a friend is reminiscent of this moment in history where a huge error in judgment led to fatal consequences.
Rockette Kick: The kick that the greaser landed on the narrator is compared with the famous dance move by the Rockettes, a precision-dance crew who were known for their eye-high leg kicks.
Toltec Mask: These masks came from the Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican city in history, where these stone masks were made and generally noted for their expressive features. The look on the greaser’s face was compared to the same.
Toad in a loaf: This is a reference taken from Ingmar Bergman’s film, “The Virgin Spring” where the appearance of a toad, which the girl had hidden in the loaf of bread, triggers the antagonists to rape her. This is compared with their sudden, primal need to take advantage of the helpless girl.
Sabine Women: It is believed that the Romans brought the Sabine women to Rome in mass numbers and raped them in order to start large families. The cry of the girl in the story is compared with the cries of these helpless women.
The Naked and the Dead: This was a book and movie by the same name about the World War II. The author compares his act of crawling and hiding to that of soldiers at war.
About the Author
T. Coraghessan Boyle, or T.C. Boyle, as he is more commonly known, was born in Peekskill, New York. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree (English & History) in 1968 from the State University of New York, followed by his Masters in Fine Arts Degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1974 and a Ph.D. from the University in 1977. He is known for his portrayal of a wide spectrum of characters borrowed from the life and times that he was a part of. He would then mold these characters in a way that was easy to relate to, and his articulation made reading approachable for all. He is currently an English Professor in the University of Southern California.
In conclusion, the Greasy Lake is a wonderful mirror into the life and times of 1960s’ America, and is a great read, being a well-informed portrayal of human conflicts and the need to conform. If this article has gotten you excited, and you haven’t read it, please do give this book a read!