Badder than “Bad”: Danger and Experience in T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake”

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It is not a new idea that young adults often have a limited perspective. They are still learning about the world and gaining self-awareness and self-determination. T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake” is a story about a young man whose life experiences are fairly limited. He believes that he and his friends are “bad” characters, but the reader knows from the first paragraph that this is not true. The story is about a young man who learns self-awareness when he is exposed to true danger. Boyle demonstrates the journey the young man takes (both literal and metaphorical) through his use of very specific descriptions of characters and settings which contrast the young boy and his current worldview with the harsh reality of the world that exists just beyond his frame of reference.

What first reveals to the reader that the protagonist and his friends are not truly the “bad” characters they claim to be, is the narrator’s own descriptions of himself and his friends. It is a lengthy description, but worth a close examination, as it gives the reader just about all the information they need to really understand these characters. As the narrator describes, “We wore torn-up leather jackets...sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine...we wheeled our parents' whining station wagons out onto the street...We were nineteen. We were bad. We...struck elaborate poses to show that we didn't give a shit about anything” (Boyle 1). Nearly every word in the description reveals how not dangerous the characters really are. To begin with, the descriptions are mostly physical. The narrator’s first association with danger is his torn-up leather jacket. He and his friends are affecting the appearance and behavior of more dangerous individuals. The cocaine they take is only allegedly cocaine—none of them would be able to recognize it anyway. The cars they drive to belong to their parents, evidence that these young men come from standard American homes. Their “elaborate poses” are just that, clever affectations that they believe make them seem more dangerous than they really are. It is important to remember that these boys are only nineteen. They are not at all prepared for the events in which they eventually take part.

The young men’s journey really begins as they make their way to Greasy Lake. Boyle writes that the lake is located out “past the housing developments and shopping malls” (2). He describes the way the streetlights disappear as trees overtake the road that leads there. According to the narrator, Greasy Lake was once clear body water, but that it had become “fetid and murky” and that the bank's glitter with “broken glass” and are “strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires” (Boyle 2). Greasy Lake is unlike the tidy strip the boys travel to arrive there. A definite separation exists between the location they leave and the lake at which they arrive. This distance helps the reader understand that the events unfolding will be unlike anything that has occurred in the boys’ lives up to this point.

Boyle further develops the separation between Greasy Lake and the world outside of it as his narrator explains his and his friends’ motivations for traveling there. As he explains, “we wanted to snuff the rich scent of possibility on the breeze...howl at the stars” (2). Boyle’s use of the verb “snuff” as opposed to “sniff” is especially telling. It is a much more animalistic verb, more associated with dogs than men. This is further underscored by the boys’ need to “howl” at the night sky. The actions of the story hereafter are, in fact, animalistic. This snuffing and howling are appropriate when one considers the pack mentality of the boys as they attempt to assault the girl they come upon later in the story. As the narrator describes “the primeval susurrus of frogs and crickets” he ends with the declarative, “This was nature” (Boyle 2). Greasy Lake is a world wholly removed from that of the boys’ actual lives, here, anything could happen.

At this point, Boyle has done well establishing the facts of the story: These boys are not nearly as bad as they believe themselves to be, and Greasy Lake is a dangerous place, far removed from the boys’ suburban lives. Quickly, the action takes over. As they pull up to the lake, the boys see a car whose owner they believe they know. They harass the driver, blaring their lights and horn. Once the driver exits the car, it becomes apparent that they do not know him, and that trouble is likely coming. This is signaled to the reader as the narrator says, “The first mistake, the one that opened the whole floodgate, was losing my grip on the keys” (Boyle 3). Obviously, the keys to the car are the boy's chance of escape, should they need it, which they likely do. As the narrator tells the reader, this mistake was “damaging and irreversible,” so it is safe to assume that trouble is headed their way (Boyle 3).

When the stranger exits the car, it does not take long to see that he is much more the bad character that the boys envision themselves to be. The stranger wastes no time, kicking the young man squarely in the jaw. He is, as the narrator describes, “a man of action,” unlike the boys who are usually too busy striking their “elaborate poses” to act on anything (Boyle 4). Throughout the altercation, the reader is reminded over and over just how out of depth the boys are. The protagonist considers the loss of his “favorite tooth” and refers to the stranger as his “antagonist,” as if the events are occurring in a book instead of his own life (Boyle 5).

It is at this point the story really shifts. Without much explanation as to why the narrator suddenly gains the courage to attack the stranger with a tire iron that he only has in his car because he believes that “bad characters” keep them for defense. He drops the stranger with one hit, and at this point, believes him to be dead. It is important to note that all through this interaction, the young man still can’t take it very seriously. He makes more than one allusion to the events occurring as a movie. As he says, “He was a stunt man and this was Hollywood...” (Boyle 5). Even after he has done the act, he can’t really identify with the type of person who would kill someone in real life.

For a second time in the story, the protagonist paints himself and his friends as a wild pack of animals. Body full of adrenalin, the boy recounts that they were “standing over him in a circle, gritting our teeth, jerking our necks, our limbs and hands and feet twitching with glandular discharges. No one said anything” (Boyle 5). It is this animalistic instinct that takes over when the stranger’s girlfriend exits her car and they attempt to rape her. They are not successful. These boys are never truly the bad characters they hope to be. A second car appears and scares them off. They run into the lake and make their way to the small island at its center. On their way, they have their only true brush with death as they come across the body of a dead biker. The protagonist is not sure, at first, of what he has found. “It gave like a rubber duck,” he explains. “It gave like flesh” (Boyle 7). It is flesh, but the young man has never felt a dead body before, so he does not know this immediately. As Michael Walker notes in his, “Boyle's ‘Greasy Lake’ and the Moral Failure of Postmodernism,” “the pattern of similes works well and logically: the reference to a bath toy carries us from a child's response to a sickening awareness” (250). Like the characters in the story, the reader sees this disparity between the boys’ young life, and the world beyond it. As Paul W. Gleason explains, in his Understanding T.C. Boyle, it as this point that the shifting nature of morality emerges as “Boyle's narrator finds the mortality and animality that connect all humans and morally condemns the narrator and his friends for their violent actions” (19). Until this point, the reader is given no indication that the boys have begun to understand their own place in life—that of the privileged youth, and not the dangerous outsiders they have so far imagined, but here, this close to death, they just may begin to get it.

The boys take cover, and eventually, the stranger recovers. He, his girlfriend, and the two men from the other car leave, but not before they do some damage to the protagonist’s own vehicle. They do, of course, leave the tires intact. This is a story about three young men who realize the limits of their own “badness;” if this was a story about three young men who become truly “bad,” then their chance of returning to their normal lives would be hindered, but here, as the sun comes up, they find their keys and return to their car. As they prepare to leave, a third car pulls up. Out from it come two young girls. They are drunk and offer to share their drugs with young men. This is the party they had hoped to find when they arrived at Greasy Lake. The author himself explains it best in an interview on his own website. As he explains, “Something has been revealed to him about the nature of life, its dark accidents and the limitations of the hip. There is always a worse character than you. And what are you searching for anyway” (Boyle)? The reader is given some hope that the narrator has learned a lesson from the events, as they refuse the drugs and head to their car.

“Greasy Lake” is T.C. Boyle’s look at three young men in small-town America. These men are sheltered and lack any real self-awareness. They believe themselves to be cool, dangerous characters, but of course, they are not. Boyle puts the boys in a situation where their badness is tested, and they fall short. The situation does, however, teach them some lessons about their own lives and exposes them to what actual danger is like. Boyle uses specific and telling descriptions to show a stark contrast between the boys and their lives, and the dangerous world of which they think they’d like to be a part.

Works Cited

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. Greasy Lake & Other Stories. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1985. Print.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan Interview. T.C. Boyle Resource Center. Sandye Utley, 2001. Web. 11 Dec. 2013

Walker, Michael. "Boyle's 'Greay Lake' and the Moral Failure of Postmodernism." Studies in Fiction 31.2 (1994): 247-51. General OneFile. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Gleason, Paul William. Understanding T.C. Boyle. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. Print.