Analysis of "Greasy Lake"
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Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2006
by Ben Ganter
Moment of Enlightenment
In every young man’s life a point exists where he moves from the fantasy of invincibility to the realization of mortality. For some, it is a gradual move with no defined moment of enlightenment, but rather a series of progressive steps. For others, there is an epiphany, surrounded by a tragic or near tragic event that provokes a transformation. Either way, the inevitable transformation exists. The short story “Greasy Lake" by Thomas Coraghessan Boyle reveals a moment of enlightened transformation in three young men as they go through a series of mistakes, consequences, and reaffirmation.
“Greasy Lake" is a well-written short story that traces the events leading up to the young men’s revelatory moment. An article written by Michael Walker, found in Studies in Short Fiction, supports this proposal, “‘Greasy Lake’ is an excellent example of a story that includes many conventions of the revelatory tale" (248). This coming of age story can easily be applied to similar stories of young men all over the world as a well-remembered turning point on the road to maturity. For the characters of this story, one mistake follows another, revealing potential and actual consequences leading up to their revelatory moment.
The young men in the story see themselves as tough characters: “We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue…we drank gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai. We were nineteen. We were bad" (922). These boys see themselves as the epitome of coolness, as supported by an article published by Gale Research, which claims “the narrator and his fellow initiates believe they are acting cool they roll their own marijuana cigarettes and are smooth dancers they wear their sunglasses day and night, inside and out. They think of themselves as ‘bad characters’" (2). Yet, they are not born in the streets, or self-sustaining tough guys. They are just simple sons in rebellion. Larry McCaffery a critic with The New York Times Book Review supports this suggestion when he submits the young men are “ frustrated in their efforts to find a suitable outlet for their passions and energies in America’s shiny new suburban jungles" (15).
Only three days into summer break with nothing to do, they choose to go “in search of thrills, they find themselves in more trouble than they had anticipated" (Walker 249). In the midst of a climactic moment, the narrator recounts his mistakes: losing his grip on the keys, identifying the wrong car and going for the tire iron, all choices that lead to near tragedy. This series of mistakes sets the stage for their eventual transformation.
Every mistake has consequences. For these characters, the consequences of the night reveal themselves one at a time, each building on the other. Greasy Lake, “a mythic spot once known by the Indians for its clear waters but now littered with broken glass, beer cans and contraceptives," provides the perfect backdrop for their revelatory baptism (McCaffery 16). Arriving at the lake, they spot a car, which Digby claims:
Belongs to another friend of theirs, who is no doubt inside having sex with a girl. They shine their lights on the Chevy, honk the horn, and even look inside the car’s windows. Then they realize that the Chevy’s occupant is not their friend at all but a real bad character [Bobby]---a ‘man of action’ in steel-toed boots who, furious at the interruption, comes out kicking. (Gale 1).
This mistaken identity turns for the worse and “the rich scent of possibility turns sour in a hurry [as] a vicious thug, mistaken for a buddy, car keys are lost, a fight ensues, a tire iron emerges, skulls are rattled" (McCaffery 16).
The emergence of the tire iron represents a pivotal point in the plot. The boys mistakenly think that the force of the tire iron to Bobby’s head has killed him. Before they are able to process the possibility of murder, they “are suddenly accosted by Bobby’s ‘fox,’ who emerges screaming from the car. The bad characters attempt to rape her, but are interrupted by another car swinging into the parking lot" (Walker 249). In the minds of the three young men, they are now convinced that they have committed murder and have been witnessed in their near attempt at raping the girl. The arrival of the other car stops them from crossing over into rape and scares them to point that they retreat “into the primal ooze of Greasy Lake itself" (McCaffery 16).
Luckily for the young men, Bobby turns out to be a little rattled but not dead, and the other car is not the police or witnesses to their attempted rape but friends of Bobby’s. They have narrowly escaped the lasting consequences of murder and rape but will soon helplessly witness the destruction of their car at the hands of their enraged victims. The tragic events have jarred what little sense they have by opening the door to the realization of their actions and their eventual transformation.
The realization of their actions is further heightened by the discovery of a dead body floating in the lake by the narrator. Walker suggests that:
While hiding in the shallows of the lake, the protagonist encounters a ‘nasty little epiphany’---the floating corpse of a dead biker, whose motorcycle is parked in the lot. He was probably the only person on the planet worse off than I was…. ‘My car was wrecked he was dead.’ The narrative style itself—the older narrator looking back on his youthful ignorance and bravado with ironic detachment—leads us to expect the awareness of truth dawning upon the adolescent. (249)
The introduction of the dead biker adds that extra push for the narrator to further evaluate his current circumstances and further his transitional growth.
By night’s end, the full extent of actual consequences emerge, as do the three boys from Greasy Lake. Boyle writes, “When the three companions emerge from hiding at daybreak and meet at the ruined car, Digby remarks, ‘At least they didn’t slash the tires.’ The narrator agrees, noticing that although ‘there was no windshield, the headlights were staved in, and the body looked as if it had been sledge-hammered for a quarter a shot at the county fair… the tires were inflated to regulation pressure. The car was drivable’" (Walker 254).
The young men’s reaffirmation of their newfound enlightenment comes in the form of a second chance offering to fulfill the “real bad character" persona that they so desired before (Gale 2). As the boys collect their thoughts and reflect on the prior nights events, two girls in a Mustang pull into the parking lot. They are no doubt looking for the biker who now resides, peacefully bobbing, in the waters of Greasy Lake. The girls from the Mustang represent another opportunity to fulfill “the drunken excitement for which they have been searching unsuccessfully all evening" (Bull 20). Before them stand easy pickings, girls in “tight jeans [and] stiletto heels" bearing a handful of pills and temptation in which they were in frantic search for one long night before, but with the night’s events still fresh in their minds, Digby declines the offer (Boyle 929).
Although Digby is the only character to verbally denounce the temptation, the conciliatory silence of the other two characters is enough to lead the reader to believe a transformation has occurred in all three. In addition to the narrator’s pacifying silence, agreement is revealed in the form of a nonverbal action when he slips the “car in gear…creeping towards the highway" (Boyle 929). His answer is final and transformation is now complete. The “sheen of sun on the lake" represents a renewal of life’s opportunity, as well as a confirmation of it, for they have passed their first test (Boyle 929). Their moment of enlightened transformation has come, and they have taken stock in its message their transformation is now absolute.
“Greasy Lake" is more than just a story of one night in the life of three teenagers rather, it is a story of revelation. The narrator submerges into the dirty water of Greasy Lake in retreat and emerges with a cleansed sense of maturity and understanding. The series of mistakes and near consequences of the night’s events are now permanently etched into the subconscious of the three young men and will forever influence their future actions and behavior. Boyle’s tale of transformation has a mesmerizing effect on readers who can recount and relate to that defined moment of enlightenment that shaped their lives and brought them to their current state of maturity.
Bull, Malcolm. “Corn." London Review of Books. January 1994: 19-20. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Brookhaven College Library, Farmers Branch, TX. 4 April 2006
Gale Research. “’Greasy Lake’, by T. Coraghessan Boyle." Characters in Twentieth-Century Literature. 1995: 1-3. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Brookhaven College Library, Farmers Branch, TX. 4 April 2006
McCaffery, Larry. “Lusty Dreamers in the Suburban Jungle." The New York Times Book Review. June 1985: 15-16. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Brookhaven College Library, Farmers Branch, TX. 4 April 2006
Walker, Michael. “Boyle’s ‘Greasy Lake’ and the Moral Failure of Postmodernism." Studies in Short Fiction. Spring 1994: 247-255. Literature Online. Chadwyck-Healey. Brookhaven College Library, Farmers Branch, TX. 4 April 2006
Boyle, T. Coraghessan.
This Article has been viewed 74,665 times. (Not updated in real-time.)Top-level comments on this article: (7 total)
» left by sarah from virginia 5 years 82 days ago.
yess this article was amazinggg!
» left by Anonymous 4 years 233 days ago.
Well crafted essay. Really helped me grasp the events in "Greasy Lake".
» left by Anonymous 4 years 163 days ago.
When and where does Boyle ever allude to any sort of enlightenment in the adolescents? Contrary to your interpretation, Walker's article argues that this story is NOT an example of moral transformation and "Greasy Lake" is an excellent example of a story that includes many conventions of the revelatory tale but draws back at every opportunity of displaying any true revelation in the characters in such a way that the story parodies the belief in revelation itself." (Walker, pg. 1) You're taking his words out of context.The protagonist is a flat, static character: an arrogant, immature, selfish nineteen year old who feels absolutely NO remorse for Bobby, Bobby's 'fox,' Al, Digby, Jeff, or the two women in the mustang. Don't you think that Boyle would have inserted some sort of evidence of a moral backbone by the end of the story? And no, the "hero's" silence does not infer any sort of inner thought; he just has nothing to say because he's still thinking about the tactical error of losing his keys. They were his ticket to avoidance--you know, the wistful "if only...?" If only he didn't lose the keys; none of this would have happened. He doesn't feel pity for Al, decaying and waterlogged in the lake; he feels no shame for the near rape incident. No, he is just thinking about the keys and what he is going to tell his parents.You're a decent writer, but you kind of missed the target on this one.» left by Anonymous 3 years 187 days ago.
If the boys didn't change then why would they refuse the pills, the girls and the party at the end?????» left by maybe 232 days 5 hours ago.
I don't think that they boys refused the pills because they had changed, you have to remember that they just spent the entire night hiding after a sever ass beating, and if these women hang around bikers like All then maybe they are also meaner than the boys are, possibly trying to avoid another beating is a great reason to decline such an invitation.» left by Anonymous 2 years 110 days ago.
Literature can be interpreted many ways and this was they way he saw it. You have your opinion also and that is fine but is analysis was very good and he used evidence to back up his theories.» left by Emmannuel Thomas from Rockland County, NY, USA 2 years 65 days ago.
Boyle says at the end of the story that, "There was a sheen of sun on the lake." The sun, its bright light, which in most cases in literature stands for bringing life and prosperity, indicates that there is a bright new future awaiting the three boys. Also, when the protagonist looked back, he sees two girls still standing there and the protagonist is moving away from them. The two girls represents temptation, peer pressure, and trouble and since the protagonist is moving away from them, it shows that the protagonist is moving away from his bad behavior and his thoughts of himself as a cool "bad" boy. If he was just thinking about his keys and what he is going to tell his parents, the protagonist should not have agreed when Digby said "NO" to the girls. He could have gone out with them which is what the drunken experience he was looking for. But, what the protagonist have witnessed changed him and when Digby says "No," the "No" stands for the youth saying no to drugs, alcohol, and coccaine. Form what I see there is no doubt that the boys experience have impacted their lives in some ways and from now own they will think once more before committing unlawful activities.
I am not saying your thoughts are wrong, but just saying what i thought about the end of Boyle's story.
» left by Anonymous 4 years 162 days ago.
Wow, not sure you actually understood my essay. Reguardless of what the author meant to say or not say it is my duty as a reader to interpret as is the essence of a short story. In the future you may want to read the story yourself and interpret the story yourself instead of using someone elses interpretation as gospel! If this is really bugging you try calling the author and asking him what he meant. Thank you for the "decent writer" comment, glad to know I could be a decent writer if I wasn't already a construction worker. Stick with reading Harry Potter where everything you need to know is clearly spelled out by the author.» left by vanessa from ny 4 years 87 days ago.
» left by smitty from Sydney 4 years 26 days ago.
This was very helpful! thanks heaps!I do however realise that this was only YOUR personal interpretation of the story and should not be everyones. and you did a very good job of convincing me of it, even though I didn't share that from my reading.Thanks Ben» left by Ben Ganter from Dallas, TX 4 years 26 days ago.
Thank you for your comments I really appreciate it! I really do like hearing other peoples take on my essay and the story itself! It is my guess that you are researching the story for an assignment and I wish you the best of luck and hope my article helped you in some small way!
» left by Anonymous 3 years 48 days ago.
You should read Real Boys.Then you will truly understand this article.
» left by bobby 84 days 20 hours ago.
This is a great interpretation of the article and well written also not everyone must agree with you but dont let people discourage you by making you feel you are wrong.
That is basically the first thing taught in a beginners literature course, is that everyone interprets poems or short stories of this kind however they please or can as long as you can back up your ideas and you did a great job doing that so, In general you did good by uploading this essay it may help people get a different perspective or even understand the story better so thank you for uploading this, you didn't just help me but im sure you help a bunch of other people.