Illusions and Reality in The Things They Carried and Greasy Lake
The Things They Carried revolves around a couple of military men during the Vietnam war, each man carrying objects determined by ‘necessity’ and sharing the burden of war. The plot lies in Jimmy Cross’s need to reinforce himself to battle reality, which is here distinctly segregated from the realm of imagination. The story of Greasy Lake breaks down the perception of what is cool and bad and shows the reality of the situation. The story centers on a group of young boys of privilege who represent twisted ideas of social rebellion, self-image, and masculinity. In both The Things They Carried and Greasy Lake, the protagonists of the stories are partially removed from the realities of their situations, trapped in their own world. To Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who is fighting a brutal war in Vietnam, Martha represents the safety and security of life at home. The narrator in Greasy Lake is not truly a ‘bad boy’ but is simply lost in an adolescent world of unhealthy self-image. However, through his “baptism” in the Greasy Lake, the haven of fun and enjoyment it once was, he rejects his bad aspirations, having thus gained the realistic view of life.
“His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war…but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the jersey shore, with Martha carrying nothing.” (O’Brien, 234). Though Jimmy Cross realizes that Martha does not love him, he is still obsessed with her. For him, Martha represents a necessary distraction, a means of surpassing the terror and violence of war. Jimmy Cross sees Martha in the exact same way in which soldiers in Vietnam think of the world back home; it is desirable and peaceful but also unreal. Unfortunately, Cross does not see an issue with what he is doing, his failure to recognize the reality of where he is causes him to lose mental focus on the battlefield. The result, as is demonstrated by the story, is deadly.
Jimmy Cross understands what might happen to him while on patrol and that he might not be able to go back to the innocence of life before the war. His thoughts turn toward unfulfilled dreams and desires to a young lady whom he doesn’t know very well as a person, but still treats her almost as a pure figure and worships from afar. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Jimmy has assumed more into his relationship with Martha than what is truly there. “At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack…then at full dark he would return to his whole and wonder if Martha was a virgin.” (O’Brien, 232). Jimmy Cross constantly wonders if Martha is a virgin because he admires her as an untouched individual who stands for something pure, far from the horror and hate that he is exposed to every day in the war.
In Greasy Lake the lake is a place where the narrator and his friends escape from the constraints of his society and unleash their “bad boy” tendencies. There they can get high, drink, smoke and watch girls. “I understood what it was that bobbed there so inadmissibly in the dark. Understood and stumbled back in horror and revulsion…I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here, in the space of five minutes I had struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second” (Boyle, 308). Running into the lake to escape his encounter with reality, the narrator hits reality again in the form of a corpse floating into the water. The lake changes from a place of harmony to one of fear. However, it’s not really the lake itself who changes but the men who go there. The lake and the characters are bound together through their similarities. The lake is described as “fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans” (Boyle, 306). The characters are also described as being “greasy” or “dangerous” several times throughout the story.
The freedom Greasy Lake promises sources the narrator and his friends’ reckless actions and the threatening situation they get themselves into. The lake offers the illusion of liberating from traditional masculinity; however, in reality, it shows that behaving without constrictions can lead to dreadful consequences. These consequences can include death and that is what awaits the narrator as a “bad character”. In experiencing the horror of the dead man, the narrator has matured and ‘seen the light’ of acting morally. By the end of the story, the lake has a darker tone and is probably not a place where the narrator will feel safe again.
There are some illusions that dive us deeper into reality and make us face our deepest fears. The way that Jimmy Cross invests so much time into ‘pretending’ and creating fantasies of love between himself and Martha indicates how important escapism is for him. One of Cross’s soldiers dies due to his escapist daydreams and forces him to abandon these fantasies. His emotional attachments provided a relief from his current reality. He can only feel human when he’s allied to the world back home, even though he’s so separate from it in many ways. A late-night struggle leads to encounter with a dead body, causing the main character in Greasy Lake to reflect upon his wild lifestyle. Both stories show the maturation of the main characters through violence, though in different forms. In the course of that day, life has gotten real for both characters.
Different Meanings in The Story “Greasy Lake” by T.C. Boyle And Movie Adaptation
Experience The Story
The story “Greasy Lake” by T.C. Boyle and the movie that was based off of the short story give off entirely different meaning. My first impression of the story was that it is in depth, meaningful, and well written. In this story, the main character and his two best friends are attempting to be ‘bad characters’ like the people they see in movies. As with most good stories that get a movie based on them, ‘Greasy Lake’ is no exception. However the first impression of the movie might be different for most viewers if they’re read the story first and that might be because it lacks in the deep meaning that the story had. Movies can’t have every little detail that the stories have because movies are mainly driven by dialogue, but even looking past that fact and focusing on just the basic details that the director could’ve included, it’s hard to let everything slide. But the whole atmosphere changed in the movie as well and in this essay I will go into more detail on why I feel that way.
The first reason the movie lacks an atmosphere that the story possess is because it doesn’t have the feature of the footnotes to put a deeper meaning behind a reference. So the movie doesn’t use these references at all, there is no mention of the sabine women, Virgin Spring, or make any connection to the Vietnam war (Boyle). These references drove the story to have a deeper meaning and it ties in a feeling of realness. The movie just felt like a normal movie with no deep connection to real life, which is the complete opposite effect of the short story. The reason the footnotes were so important was because it tied what the characters were experiencing to history or other cultural references. Since there wasn’t any of the background references in the movie, it’s hard for viewers to connect.
Another reason why the movie lacked the same atmosphere that readers enjoyed while reading the story is that the movie was solely driven by dialogue and actions and didn’t include any of the inner thoughts of the main character. I’ve seen movies that somehow make the thoughts of the main character known either by voiceovers or through other techniques, but this short movie didn’t even try. Therefore, it is driven by dialogue, more so than in the story. The beginning of the movie is the one exception because that was a voiceover, but that doesn’t occur later on in the movie. The story is bridged by the thoughts of the main character, especially in times when he was in a moment of ‘being bad’, like the part when him and his friends almost rape the ‘fox’. There was no dialogue coaxing these actions, they just happened. For example; “We were on her like Bergman’s brothers- see no evil, hear none, speak none…” (Boyle 171) The lack of dialogue in the short story added a curious atmosphere and it made the reader want to read faster and left a thick air between action to action. If the movie could’ve included the thoughts of the main character, then it would have been a more driven storyline.
In conclusion, the movie was a rough cut version of the short story. This could’ve been from lack of funding because it was such a short movie based off a short story, the funding couldn’t have been as it is for Hollywood movies. However it’s understandable that most movies based off of stories are like that but I feel that minor changes could’ve made the movie much better and more like the story, even without major funding. The readers might have been left disappointed that the movie lacked the dark, curious atmosphere that the story had. The closest it came to doing so was by literally making the movie dark and sort of hard to see, even while watching it in a dark room to contrast it. In conclusion, I highly recommend to anyone that’s curious about the general story to read the story before watching the movie. It would be hard to appreciate the well written story by T.C. Boyle after watching the rough cut movie.
Characteristic Of The Narrator in Greasy Lake Novel
A dynamic character is a character who undergoes a major change throughout a story. In Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle, the narrator can be classified as a dynamic character. Upon arriving at the teenage hangout, greasy lake, the narrator and his friends, Digby and Jeff, stumble across a car that resembles their friends’. The teenage boys honked at the vehicle as a prank, and after some time had passed, a different man exited the car. Bobbie, the stranger, was seeing red after the prank, as he was interrupted while trying to bed with a beautiful young woman. Intimidated by Bobbie’s infuriated words and actions, the narrator pulls a tire iron from beneath his seat, as that was where “bad boys” kept one. Three against one, the boys were still being overpowered; that was, until the narrator swung his tire iron against Bobbie’s head. After the boys’ victory, the woman in Bobbie’s car came around running and screaming at the narrator and his friends. In a frenzy and simultaneously attracted to the woman, the three of the friends began tearing away her clothes. Meanwhile, another car pulled into the lot of greasy lake. Before the boys had the opportunity to rape this woman, the men inside the vehicle scared them away. The friends scattered in all different directions; the narrator ran through the woods and plunged into the swampy water, where he watched and listened for what was happening up ahead.
The narrator, who is nameless, evolved greatly throughout the entirety of the story. Boyle captured the narrator’s every emotion extremely well. At the beginning of the short story, when the boys were playing the prank, the narrator had an attitude that reflected carelessness, and he seemed to welcome trouble. After he had plunged into the lake, “I [the narrator] was breathing in sobs, in gasps.” Obviously, from this statement, one can conclude that he was feeling scared and perhaps even worried; a giant downgrade from the “tough” aura aforementioned. The narrator remained in the lake for several long moments, listening to what was occurring by his car.
A surge of joy bolted throughout the narrator when he heard a shout; the man that the crew of teens had beaten down was alive! The narrator underwent a great flux of emotion during this time; scared to joyous, to scared again, when Bobbie called out a threat to the teens. The night fell silent once again, until the antagonists decided what they were going to do about the situation. The narrator listened intently as they smashed his mother’s car. His reaction was to sink even deeper into the mucky water.
“I [the narrator] don’t know how long I lay there…” Finally, the narrator attempted to leave the lake. Beaten and bruised, he contemplated suicide, then his thoughts took an abrupt turn. What was he going to tell his parents? He found his way to his car and examined the damage, just in time for his two friends to emerge from the woods. The tires were intact, so they hopped into the car. Everything was well, until another car pulled up behind them. The boys froze as a woman approached their car. She asked for Al, and the narrator was painfully quiet until he gained the courage to speak, to tell the girl that the three of them had not seen anyone. However, the girl noticed that the three of them looked like “bad boys,” what they were self-proclaimed as at the beginning of the story, so she offered for them to “party” with her. “I [the narrator] looked at her. I thought I was going to cry.” This line showed a massive leap in the narrator’s attitude. It took one awful night embedded in his memory for him to realize that being a “bad boy” wasn’t all that great of a life to live.
In conclusion, the narrator was a very dynamic character, passionate about being a tough “bad boy” with his two buddies. As the story progressed, he evolved and realized how much pain such a life could bring oneself. He was beaten, stricken with fear, almost to the point of tears; none of these describe a perfect “bad boy.” His overall character took an entire three-sixty turn in just one night; from a prestigious “bad boy” to a lousy kid who was put into his place by a few rough men.
Symbols And Their Meaning in Greasy Lake
Adolescent teens often go through a cynical rebellion phase, some more severe than others. Some grow out of this phase and some do not; however, some teens linger in this phase because they deem it to be attractive. T.C Boyle’s “Greasy Lake” tells the story of a naive group of adolescents who see themselves as “bad characters”. They dwell within the confines of their own immaturity, which compells them to act brash and reckless. However, when they are confronted with a genuine bad character, they are forced to take action and show their true character. “Greasy Lake” and its characters, plot, and symbols convey a message: “Adolescence is a phase in life in which perception has not yet fully developed and awareness of one’s true character has often not yet been realized”.
Symbolism is prevalent throughout the whole story and ultimately contributes to the development of the theme. At the tender age of 19, the narrator has not had his driver’s license for long. Although sharing a vehicle with his parents, the narrator still boasts about his dangerous character when he says, “[When] We wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out onto the street we left a patch of rubber half a block long” (294). The fact that the narrator is driving a Bel-Air station wagon is enough reason to cast doubt upon the merit of his self-perception. The Bel-Air station wagon represents our narrator and his life. It shows that he is still dependant, it shows that he is not the self sustaining, independent guy that he portrays himself to be. The dangerous character that they confused for a friend owns a, “57′ Chevy, mint, metallic blue” (295). A 1957 Chevy came with a big block V8 engine and is the epitome of what a greaser would have driven. During the conflict while the greaser was temporarily unconscious, our narrator and his crew attempted to rape the greaser’s girlfriend but were terrified and fled the scene when a Pontiac Trans-Am heroically entered the scene. The Trans-Am was a popular muscle car that would not be out of place when seen cruising with a’57 Chevy; as a matter of fact, they complement each other quite well. The chopper that resides in Greasy Lake’s parking lot should be a mascot of all greasy and dangerous characters. The chopper reflects its owner Al, who is discovered dead by our narrator and acts as the catalyst for his enlightenment. These cars are a reflection of the lives of their owners. At the climax of the story, our narrator describes an epic, but although rather typical scene, when he says, “It was at that precise moment that the silver Mustang with the flame decals rumbled into the lot. […] Two girls emerged from the Mustang. Tight jeans, stiletto heels, hair like frozen fur”(301). The Mustang is typically first choice for many attractive American females, it is well known that American females adore America’s pony car. The girls notice our narrator and his crew and after a few remarks about Al, the girls say, “Hey, you guys look like some pretty bad characters— been fightin’ huh?” (302). She then goes on to offer the narrator some unidentified drugs and says, “Hey you want to party, you want to do some of these with me and Sarah?”(302). The narrator says to himself, “I thought I was going to cry” (302). Therefore demonstrating the protagonists realization of his true character.
The narrator starts the story by saying, “There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste” (294). This statement hints towards the theme. The story starts to take shape when we learn that the characters are on their third day of summer vacation and heading to Greasy Lake in search of some excitement. When they get there, Digby shouts, “Hey, that’s Tony Lovett’s car! Hey!” (295). Assuming that the person in the car was there companion, they honked, they laughed, and they flicked their high beams on at the car, this in turn sets the arena for the conflict to take place. The narrator describes the next complication when he says, “The first mistake, the one that opened the whole floodgate, was losing my grip on the keys. […] I spilled them in the grass— in the dark, rank, mysterious nighttime grass of Greasy Lake. This was a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmoreland’s decision to dig in at KheSanh”(295). Because of this complication, the characters are forced into remaining at Greasy Lake, thus sealing their fate and forcing them to take action and to act upon instinct, and ultimately revealing to all their true character. The man inside the car is described as, “bad greasy character- clearly he was a man of action”(296). The characters engage in a three to one rumble and struggle against this one true bad character. The turning point in the conflict is when the narrator says, “I went for the tire iron I kept under the driver’s seat. I kept it there because bad characters always keep tire irons under the driver’s seat […] never mind that I hadn’t been involved in a fight since the sixth grade […] and I went for it” (296). The narrator describes the blow to the man by saying, ” he was a big grimacing toothy balloon and I was a man with a straight pin” (297). Almost immediately, the narrator feels guilt and remorse and is described when he says, “Rattled, I dropped it in the dirt, already envisioning the headlines […] the big black shadow rising from the back of the cell” (297). By being concerned for the greaser and for his future, the narrator is showing his true character, not the front that he put up before the incident took place. Although remorseful, the narrator and his crew were overwhelmed with lust at the sight of the greaser’s girl and quickly transformed back into the evil characters they wished they were. The narrator describes the scenario when he says, “We were on her like […] panting, wheezing, tearing at her clothes, grabbing for flesh. We were bad characters, and we were scared and hot and three steps over the line— anything could have happened”(297). Thus far, the three characters have engaged in battle with a single male and struggled to achieve victory and then they attempted to gang rape the man’s girl after he was hit with a tire iron and became unconscious. However bad they seemed to be, they were afraid of being caught in the scene and facing the consequences. They were so afraid that they, “Bolted. First for the car, and then, realizing we had no way of starting it , for the woods. I thought nothing. I thought escape. The headlights came at me like accusing fingers. I was gone”(298). Had the narrator not lost his keys before the rumble, a very different course of action would have taken place. The characters would have escaped the situation and
“Greasy Lake” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Greasy Lake written by T. Coraghessan Boyle is the tale of a young man completely living a life full of rebellion and loving it. He is brought to reality and the consequences of attempting to live the ‘bad life’. As the story starts to end, we see him broken by his actions and gets a real look into what the bad life brings.
Boyle’s main character and his two friends are looking to be the bad kids with a “we don’t give a shit about anything” attitude (Boyle 1233). The main character is a nineteen year old under the influence of drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, and the freedom that comes with summer break. Accompanied by two friends of the same age (Digby and Jeff), they all want to find a way to make this summer worth remembering.
He and his friends Digby and Tony go down to Greasy Lake and they never thought of the reason why they wanted to go they just went because that’s where everyone goes. They just wanted to have a good time and enjoy some cheap thrills. They wanted to, “sniff the scent of possibility, watch a girl take off her clothes, drink beer, smoke pot, and listen to the incongruous full-throated roar of rock and roll against the primeval susurrus of frogs and crickets…This is nature” (Boyle 1233).
His friends influence every decision he makes and they support his bad decisions no matter the cost. The friends are described as, “dangerous characters”, Digby ‘allowed’ his father to pay his tuition and Jeff was contemplating dropping out of school to become a painter/musician/ head-shop proprietor (Boyle 1233). After the main character and his friends had made their rounds at all the closing bars, ate all they could, harassed hitchhikers, and vandalized property, they made their way down to Greasy Lake. Greasy lake is their last visit for the night, so of course they feel the need to go and try to embarrass their friend Tony Lovett, who they think is in his car having a good time with a foxy young lady. They start to realize that it is not his car but actually a “bad character in greasy jeans and engineer boots” (Boyle 1234).
At this point he begins to think about his bad choice, when before he wouldn’t even come close to thinking about it. He remembers his first mistake was dropping his keys after jumping out of the car; the second was mistaking the blue Chevy to be Tony Lovett’s. Seeing the bad character that hopped out of the car was not looking to be nice, he now sees the difference between right and wrong. After being sprawled out in the dirt by a kick from the bad character in the blue Chevy, the protagonist becomes less nonchalant about his situation. He thinks about the bad situation, “knowing things had gone wrong, that I was in a lot of trouble, and that the lost ignition key was my grail and my salvation” (Boyle 1234). He knocked out the guy with one swing of a tire iron he had in the car.
While looking at the guy he begins to realize what he did and he was thinking about, “headlines, pitted faces of police inquisitors, the gleam of handcuffs, clank of bars, the big black shadows rising from the back of the cell…” (Boyle 1235). The whole time the main character thinks that he may have murdered the guy. Now thinking about jail time for murder and an attempted rape, he thinks of himself different from everyone else. Now being bad is no longer good. The teenagers run away into the woods away from the scene and away from everything that just happened. As the protagonist is running he is “imagining cops and bloodhounds” trekking through the muddy polluted water looking for him (Boyle 1236). The main character runs into a corpse, and he is horrified and begins to be sorry about his actions. The corpse was a symbol of what the bad life brought, and he begins to go against his decision to being bad.
In light of seeing the dead body and believing he killed the greasy character in the engineer boots he considers: “I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here in the space of five minutes I’d struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second” (Boyle 1236). The greasy character he had struck with the tire iron and two blondies that pulled up during the attempted rape had pulverized his mother’s bel-air.
At the end of the story, the protagonist has changed his perspective on life. He no longer deems the bad life good, seeing what the bad life resulted in. The greasy character and the blonde jocks are long gone as the protagonist emerges from the muddy waters. “I pushed myself up from the mud and stepped into the open”; this line is symbolic of the protagonist’s mental shift from dark to light.
Assessing the damage to his mother’s car, the protagonist looks to his friend Digby who states, “at least they didn’t slash the tires” (Boyle 1238). It is ironic that the protagonist rebelled against standards and regulations, however, those tires set to regulation was his savior out a bad situation and back to normalcy. Here at the stories end, the protagonist is broken, sympathetic for the druggy, the dead man in the lake, and contrite over his foolishness in wanting to be bad.
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.