The Vietnam War Comes Home: “
The Vietnam War is arguably one of the most controversial and debated wars in American history. The protests against it sparked a new age of anti-government feelings in the U.S. and contributed to the hippie, peace movement it’s time is known for. The Vietnam War also showed some of the worst cases of PTSD and other changes in the soldiers who returned home than had been seen up until this point. In Vietnam, A History, Stanley Karnow attempts to discern what made the Vietnam War so different from others and what caused the effects it had on its soldiers. He quotes John Kerry as saying, “the country didn’t give a shit about the guys coming back – or what they had gone through.” (27). But whether they cared or not, the government and the country began to feel the same effects of the war that these veterans felt – a shift in American culture caused by Vietnam War. In his short story, “Greasy Lake”, T. C. Boyle illustrates the dehumanizing effect of the Vietnam War on American soldiers through the use of a war motif, a nature motif, and a car motif.
Boyle uses the motif of war to show that his characters have gone through a negative transformative experience and to create a parallel between their transformation and the transformation of American soldiers in Vietnam. In the opening paragraph of the story, Boyle states that the characters are nineteen (687) which is the same as what Karnow says was the average age of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. This was a remarkably low average age compared to past wars. The unnamed protagonist of the story describes one of his actions as, “a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmoreland’s decision to dig in at Khe Sanh.” (689). This is a very plausible comparison. The protagonist’s action of dropping his keys led to a chain of events that would change him forever, leaving him bruised and battered both in body and in spirit, just as the actions that caused the Vietnam War led to these same consequences for the American soldiers. Towards the end of the story, the protagonist describes him and his friends as, “like zombies, like war veterans,”. (694). A study conducted in 1990 found that about 30.9% (about 1 in 3) of Vietnam veterans returned home with some form of PTSD, which in many cases was in the form of severe depression and inability to connect to live back home. The term “zombies”, while slightly crude, would accurately describe both many war veterans and the protagonist and his friends. Boyle furthers his position that the Vietnam War had dehumanizing effects on soldiers with a motif of nature.
Boyle uses the motif of nature to show that the characters’ experience is reflective of the Dark Romanticism idea that one goes into nature and discovers the animalistic nature of humankind. In the beginning of the story, the protagonist describes the party scene at Greasy Lake and a typical night for him and his friends. He states, “This was nature.” (688). Towards the end of the story, the protagonist describes the sun rising in the morning over the wreck of his mother’s car and the stillness of the world around them. He says again, “This was nature.” (693). This repetition shows that the characters’ meaning of nature has changed after their experiences at Greasy Lake in this story. During the characters’ attempted rape of the woman, the protagonist describes them as, “like animals.” (690). This same woman earlier calls them “Animals!” after seeing what they have done to Bobbie. Boyle uses this term to show that the characters have regressed to an animalistic nature, similar to the one reached by American soldiers in Vietnam. Karnow states that their “only measure of success was bodycount”, the pile of enemies slaughtered. Boyle next uses a motif of a Bel-Air to show how the characters changed in the story.
Boyle uses the motif of the car to mirror the characters physical and emotional state as they go through a dramatic transformation, and chooses the motif of the Bel-Air to tap into its cultural significance. In the opening paragraph of the story, the protagonist says, “when we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out into the street, we left a patch of rubber half a block long.” (687). This description exemplifies the protagonist’s description of himself and his friends as trying their hardest to be “bad”. (687). They view their ability to “manage a Ford with lousy shocks,” (688) as an admirable one. The image of the protagonist’s mom’s Bel-Air is of a car that is old and slightly worn, but still perfectly driveable and useful. The Bel-Air doesn’t end up in such great shape; the protagonist says, “there was no windshield, the headlights were staved in, and the body looked as if it had been sledgehammered for a quarter a shot at the country fair,”. (693). He then states, “the car was driveable.” This is meant to parallel the characters themselves: they are bruised and battered but still alive. Similarly, soldiers who made it back from Vietnam came back bruised and battered — but still alive. The characters start out as young and cocky, thinking they can do anything. As a result of the events that occur in this story, they become beaten down and worn. This transition could also describe American culture as a whole, with the events taking place in the story as the Vietnam War.
Boyle’s use of these motifs allows him to tell the story of American soldiers in the Vietnam War and the changes in them that took place while disguising it in a classic coming-of-age story about an experience that transforms characters from foolish boys to battered men. His use of the war motif shows the ways in which the events that the characters experienced are similar to things experienced by soldiers, especially in the Vietnam War. The motif of nature displays the ways in which humans in general can recess back to their animalistic, primitive states, as is true of both the protagonist and his friends and the American soldiers. The physical descriptions of the car effectively mirror that stages of transformation gone through by the Boyle’s character and both America’s culture and its soldiers.
Boyle, T. C. Greasy Lake & Other Stories. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.
Guillory, Daniel L. “Bel Air: The Automobile As Art Object.” The Automobile and American Culture. Eds. David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983. 280,289. Print.
Cromie, William J. “Mental Casualties of Vietnam War Persist.” Mental Casualties of Vietnam War Persist. Harvard University Gazette, 17 Aug. 2006. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Baptism by Greasy Lake
In T.C. Boyle’s transcendent short story “Greasy Lake,” the eponymous lake reflects the evolution of the boys from naïve greasers to enlightened, mature teenagers. At the start of the story, the boys relish their bad boy image as they drive up to greasy lake to drink gin and smoke reefer. As the story progresses, however, and they find themselves in the lake, hiding from those they perceive to be sinister people, the boys are baptized and ultimately changed as a result of their misadventure.
Early on, the boys drive to the lake, wanting to smoke and drink and act like the bad guys they think they are. They’re all college students who believe that they’re bad boys because they’re exceptionally immature: “We wore torn-up leather jackets,” the narrator says, “slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether” (Para. 3). One of the boys, Digby, “allows” his father to pay for his tuition at Cornell (Paragraph 3). The other, Jeff, thought of quitting school so that he could pursue a career as a “painter/musician/head-shop proprietor” (Para. 3). In other words, he wants to pursue a career that involves little money and nothing good. Most importantly, though, Jeff’s desired career path reflects both his own immaturity and his idealistic, dreamy, even naive attitude. In other words, Jeff’s desired career path is symbolic of his lifestyle: immature, reckless, care-free, and ignorant. At this point, the boys haven’t stepped into the lake and have yet to be baptized. In other words, they’re stuck in their old fake ways and have no reason to change, because why fix something that (supposedly) isn’t broken?
Nevertheless, they arrive at the lake and see who they think is their friend “Tony Lovett’s car” (para. 6). They flash their lights at the car, and a truly bad character and his girlfriend step out; the group of boys get into a fight with the bad character. Ultimately, they knock him out with a tire iron and nearly rape the girl he was with. After this, the boys go from faux greasers to actual scoundrels. Instead of pretending to be criminals, they become criminals. This change represents another step in the journey that these characters take to the lake, and in their overall change from faux greasers to enlightened, mature teenagers.
The final stop on the journey of the boys from false tough guys to more mature young men comes after a car drives up on the group as the boys are assaulting the man and nearly raping the girl. The boys flee because they think that the cops are after them. They were frantic because they didn’t know where to go when they decided to venture into the depths of the murky lake. Before they make it to the lake, however, they come across a dead biker. Although they don’t know it, the people who pulled up on them were looking for the aforementioned dead person. Nevertheless, the boys wait in the water until dawn, scared half to death, until they get out of the water, baptized and changed. This alteration is shown after the boys leave the lake and are confronted by a group of girls who hold “out a handful of tablets in glassine wrappers” and ask the boys to “do some of these with [her] and Sarah (para. 44). The boys decline, saying “No thanks” and “Some other time” (para. 44). Prior to their experience at the lake, the boys would have undoubtedly partaken in the drugs; however, after their baptism and subsequent change (the narrator mentions that he’d like to “go home to my parents’ house and crawl into bed” like a baby, suggesting that he realized the artificiality of his earlier persona) they decline, suggesting that they are disgusted by their past actions and starkly illuminating that one night (and one setting) can profoundly change a person’s life and perspectives.
Without the lake, the boys wouldn’t have changed, and the story wouldn’t have the same effect. In the span of several hours in one setting, the boys go from faux greasers, to criminals, to enlightened, changed, more mature teenagers whose perspectives on life are completely enhanced. Without the greasy lake, the boys would have continued their care-free, immature lifestyle with grave consequences. Likely, they would have either killed someone or would have been killed themselves. Ultimately, though, after being baptized by the dastardly Greasy Lake and through their equally terrible experiences, the boys were fundamentally changed for the better. They were reborn.