Greasy Lake By T.C. Boyle: How It Is Cool To Be Bad
Imagine being a student at a high school. You walk down the hall and see a group of boys standing by some lockers. They wear black leather jackets while their hair slicked back and their eyes glazed over from doing drugs the night before. These boys are viewed as the cool people in school and this is what makes them think they are “bad”. In the short story “Greasy Lake” by T.C. Boyle, the main character and his friends are characterized by what they consider to be “bad”. They think it is cool to be bad and they aren’t interested in the position of life and instead, they would rather seek thrills and danger in places like Greasy Lake. The narrator desperately wants to be viewed as “bad” and “dangerous” and he tries to seem passive and cool, revealing himself as nervous and unsettled when he faces real danger. Just like his friends Jeff and Digby, the narrator is considered to be middle-classed, even though he wants to get rid of this uncool identity. The narrator goes through his days and nights acting like he doesn’t “give a shit about anything” and he hopes that exciting things will happen to him. Later in the story, it is revealed that the narrator and his friends aren’t as “bad” as they originally thought they were. They viewed themselves as rebels and it was good to be bad, but in reality, they end up fearing for their lives and devastating consequences take place as a result. People strive to be bad and are viewed as being cool, often ending with disastrous consequences.
Greasy Lake is the typical hangout for three rebellious boys in this short story. The narrator and his friends are looking for trouble and dangerous things to do on a summer night and they decide to go to Greasy Lake. As the boys get themselves into trouble, they realize that “being bad” has disastrous consequences. The boys “wheeled their parents’ whining station wagons out onto the street”, considering them to be financially stable and are considered middle-class but the boys aren’t interested in their position of life. They instead would rather seek thrills and experience danger at Greasy Lake. The boys wear and have possessions and do activities that make them seem “bad” and they view these things as being cool. “We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed as cocaine… we drank gin and grape juice…” (Boyle 130). The boys also throw eggs at hitchhikers and mailboxes, with seemingly nothing else to do. Part of their impression of what is cool seems to have derived from movies and television. Because the story is most likely set in the 1960s, they develop a facade that they think they are supposed to have in order to be “bad” from movies and television series in that time period, such as the boys in the movie Grease. The boys think that even though they are “bad”, nothing can touch them. They believe they are impervious to any consequence of their actions. bad will actually happen as disastrous consequences. They think it is all fun and games until bad things actually start to happen.
The boys take the narrator’s mother’s Bel Air for a drive at two in the morning to Greasy Lake, a place that offers the possibility of danger and intoxication. When they arrive, they see a metallic blue ’57 Chevy in perfect condition parked in the dirt-covered lot by the lake. Digby (one of the narrator’s friends) recognizes the car and believes it belongs to their friend Tony. The boys decide to play a “joke” on “Tony” and they “... hit the horn, strobed the lights, and then jumped out of the car to press their witty faces to Tony’s windows”. The boys jump out of the car with excitement and head towards the Chevy. As they get closer, they soon realize it was a mistake; the car does not, in fact, belong to their friend Tony. When Bobbie gets out of the car, the boys notice that he is “very bad character in greasy jeans and engineering boots” and Bobbie starts attacking the narrator while Digby tries to fight back using kung-fu (Boyle 132). Bobbie didn’t seem impressed and “laid Digby out”. Jeff (one of the narrator’s friends) also tries attacking the man while the narrator finds a tire iron under the driver’s seat. The narrator hits Bobbie with the tire iron and it takes him out. The narrator says “ I was terrified. Blood was beating in my ears, my hands were shaking, my heart turning over like a dirtbike in the wrong gear”. This violent act is a new level of “bad”, a step up from illicit drugs and throwing eggs. The narrator thinks he just killed Bobbie. The narrator tries to seem passive and cool but reveals himself to be nervous when he faces real danger. He thought that he could be rebellious when he faces danger, but in the moment, he realizes how nervous and truly unprepared he is to accept the consequences of truly “bad” behavior. The narrator and his friends were trying so hard to be “bad” and be viewed as being cool, they didn’t understand how disastrous the consequences could be.
After the narrator hits Bobbie with the tire iron, a scream breaks the silence and Bobbie’s girlfriend gets out of the car. She is barefoot and is wearing a man’s shirt and underwear, and is now alone and vulnerable without Bobbie. His girlfriend runs with clenched fists towards the boys, calling them “animals”. The narrator, filled with adrenaline and testosterone, notices the silver anklet and her painted toenails as she runs towards them. The narrator says “... it was the toenails that did it” (Boyle 133). The boys leap at Bobbie’s girlfriend and they “were on her … panting… tearing at her clothes, grabbing for flesh. We were bad characters and we were scared…” (Boyle 133). Before the boys could do anything else to her, a car quickly causes the boys to disperse. The narrator says “we bolted. First for the car, and then, realizing we had no way of starting it, for the woods. I thought nothing. I thought escape” (Boyle 133). On the way to the lake, the boys wanted to see a naked girl, just as they’d wanted to come into contact with danger. After being confronted with danger and finding themselves unprepared, they were unprepared to actually encounter a half-naked girl that they attacked and almost raped. Just like the previous situation with Bobbie, the situation escalates very quickly. First, they intend to play a seemingly harmless joke, which turns into a violent brawl. Then, they no longer want to “catch a glimpse at a naked girl”, they attack her with the intent to take advantage of her. Their teenage “bad” acts inevitably lead them toward more dangerous violent acts that have drastic consequences.
The boys flee from the scene and the narrator runs across the dirt parking lot to the edge of the lake. The narrator hears the screams of Bobbie’s girlfriend as he plunges into the murky, littered water, with plans of swimming across the lake. Once he is waist-deep in the water, he feels something “obscene, soft, and wet” in his path. He reaches out and touches it and “it gives like flesh” (Boyle 134). Realizing that he had come across a dead man’s body, the narrator “stumbles back in horror and revulsion”, overwhelmed by the increasingly dangerous events. The narrator falls on the body and he scrambles from the water, but not before catching a horrific sight of the corpse’s face. The narrator thinks “I am 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 134). The narrator has been trying to distance himself from being young, naive, and childish. He wanted to be seen as tough, rugged, and mature. When he comes face to face with the consequences of real “badness” he shrinks back to the person he truly is: a young kid who is naive and scared. At the height of his fear, the narrator finds Greasy Lake as an escape. As he is about to go into the water, to hide in the nasty murky water, he comes into contact with a corpse and realizes he isn’t in control of the situation anymore. The narrator sees the corpse’s face and in it, he sees a possible fate that awaits him at the end of his own decline into danger. He realizes at last just how serious the consequences of his actions could become.
The characters in Greasy Lake dealt with so many dangerous and violent things in one night. At the beginning of the story, the narrator and his friends believed that they were “dangerous” and “bad” without experiencing actual danger. The boys weren’t prepared for the things they experienced in one night and they thought they could handle it. They were trying to distance themselves from being young and childish so they thought doing dangerous and violent things would make them tough and mature. The boys realized that they couldn’t distance themselves from their old selves and that trying to be “bad” led them to the disastrous consequences that they faced. The boys desperately wanted to be bad and they viewed themselves as being cool, which led them to devastating consequences.