Greasy Lake written by T. Coraghessan Boyle is the tale of a young man utterly engulfed in the rebellion of adolescence and loving it. However, he is sobered by the reality and consequences of attempting to live the ‘bad life’. The attitude of the protagonist shifts into 3 stages throughout the entire story and these stages reveal the evolutionary change of the main character. The protagonist is first committed to being bad, then contemplative and lastly, contrite over his actions. The protagonist is committed to his lifestyle and deems himself a sort of rebel of all that is orthodox. After he begins to reap the consequences of his choices, he starts to contemplate his choice to be bad and nonchalant about life. As the story winds to a close, we see the main character broken and contrite by his actions and sobered by the reality of what the bad life brings.
Boyle’s main character and his two friends are on a quest to be the epitome of bad with a “we don’t give a shit about anything” attitude (294). 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 are all eager to find some sort of adventure to satiate their hormonal appetites. The protagonist is a model of his times; “courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad” (294). The protagonist is utterly opposed to all standards in his quest to live free, reminiscent of a 1970’s hippie. Boyle places more density on the protagonist’s character with each paragraph.
The protagonist is committed to being bad, and he is committed to embracing the barbarity of living unchained from standards and morals. He is committed to following the crowd and being spontaneous, willing to do whatever feels good at the moment with full confidence in his ignorance. He and his friend Digby and Tony go down to Greasy Lake “because every one went there”, they never questioned the philosophy or why they did what they did (294). 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” (294). The protagonist even views the frogs and crickets as outdated and too common and congruent for a lifestyle such as his. Living spontaneously and embracing change of all things is the protagonist’s new definition of nature.
The protagonist’s friends are like fuel to the fire of his attitude and further encourage his commitment to being bad. The protagonist describes his friends as being, “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 (294). After the protagonist and his friends had made their rounds at all the closing bars, ate all they could, harassed hitchhikers, and vandalized property, they were left with their last resort for fun; Greasy Lake. The protagonist drove his mother’s Bel-air staion wagon to Greasy Lake as Digby pounded the dashboard and sung, while Jeff vomited out the window, streaking it across the wagon’s side. Greasy lake is their last resort for some excitement, so they jump at the chance to harass their buddy Tony Lovett, who they suspect is pulled over by the lake having his way with a female in his blue Chevy. However, they are in for a rude awakening when it is not Tony Lovett’s car but rather a “bad character in greasy jeans and engineer boots” (296).
At this point the protagonist begins to contemplate his mistakes, where as he had not before. Now he realizes there will be consequences for his bad actions. He recollects 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 have a civil conversation, the protagonist begins to develop a sense of right and wrong all of a sudden. 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 contemplates the unfolding 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” (296). After failing to find his keys in the dirt, his friends not putting up much of a fight against the greasy character, the protagonist is terrified and resorts to the tire iron under his car seat. He charges the greasy character and with one swing of the tire iron he knocks him limp.
The protagonist is convicted of his actions looking at the limp greasy character in the dirt contemplating “headlines, pitted faces of police inquisitors, the gleam of handcuffs, clank of bars, the big black shadows rising from the back of the cell…” (297). Believing the man was dead, the protagonist is brought back to the reality that he may have murdered the man. However, his remorse is short lived as he and his friends spot the half naked fox the greasy character was having his way with before they showed up. Like animals they pounce on her with the lustful intent to rape her. The protagonist states, “we were scared and hot and three steps over the line—anything could have happened” (296). Before the protagonist and his friend could do anything to the girl, someone pulled up and their headlights shone on them, each particle of light convicting then, and catching them red handed in the act. They froze; the protagonist describes them in that moment as being “dirty, bloody, guilty, dissociated from humanity and civilization” (297).
The protagonist’s standard of nature has changed since the beginning of the story, he initially felt smoking pot, drinking, listening to rock and roll, and being bad was nature. Now contemplating jail time for murder and an attempted rape, he deems himself dissociated from civilisation. Now being bad is no longer good. The protagonist and his friends bolt into the murky swamped woods of Greasy Lake away from the incriminating headlights and the scene of the crime. As the protagonist is running he is “imagining cops and bloodhounds” trekking through the muddy polluted water looking for him (298). The Protagonist stumble upon a corpse he somehow knows to be 3 days dead since he’s been at the lake the past 3 nights since the start of summer break. He is horrified and begins to have a contrite heart about his actions when he comes in contact with the corpse of this bad character. The corpse was a symbol of what the bad life brought, and the protagonist begins to regret his commitment to being bad.
In light of seeing the dead body and believing he killed the greasy character in the engineer boots he contemplates: “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” (298). Seeing the dead man’s soggy lifeless body took the protagonist from a contemplative state to a contrite heart. The protagonist makes the connection between the abandoned motorcycle and the dead man in the murky water, and concluded he was a bad character. The greasy character he had struck with the tire iron and two blonde haired jocks that pulled up during the attempted rape had pulverized his mother’s bel-air. Overwhelmed with the thought of how he would explain the mashed up car to his parents, the protagonist states: “ I contemplated suicide…Then I thought about the dead man. He was probably the only person on the planet worse off than I was…who was he…?’ (300).
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. As dawn approaches, the protagonist has another epiphany that reveals a changed perspective. “Now the birds had began to take over for the crickets, and dew lay slick on the leaves…the smell of the sun firing buds and opening blossoms…everything was still. ‘This’ was nature” (300).
The main character’s view of nature shifts significantly from the beginning of the story to the end. 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” (301). 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. Approached by two girls looking for their friend named Al, the owner of the bike, now a corpse in the thick of the lake, the protagonist is broken by this reality. As the drugged girl leans into his window; “I looked at her. I thought I wanted to cry” (302). 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.
Travis Thomas is a writer, speaker, thinker, reader, poet, musician, traveler, and ambassador in cross-cultural relations. Currently Living in Mount Dora, Florida. He is given over to a vast imagination and unafraid to push the boundaries of the real and ideal. He writes on any and everything, from global politics, philosophy, theory and theology. He believes as G.K. Chesterton stated, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man”, and he enjoys exploring these riddles and questions of existence while pursuing wonder in every corner of life through writing, performing and cross-cultural action.