"Greasy Lake" is one of the most notable, readable and critically acclaimed contemporary short stories written by T. Coraghessan Boyle. The fact that he took the a line and an idea from the iconic, venerable rock star Bruce Springsteen has gained Boyle's book a lot of press although the story stands on its own as a piece of biting social satire, mixed with humor and drenched in bad behavior, felonious sexual behaviors, and alcohol. Not all critics praise this story, however, because though well written, it is very dark, sometimes it stretches credulity a bit too far, and the behavior of the characters is mindlessly violent and morally bankrupt.
The Greasy Lake Story
"…Thirty-three percent of teenagers experience problems at home, school, work or the in community stemming from substance abuse. The fact that teenagers become addicted more quickly than adults contributes to these problems… between 1977 and 1987 [the window of time that Boyle's story was written] alcohol was responsible for approximately 54% of all fatal automobile crashes in Colorado…" (Colorado State University, 2004).
What author Boyle shows besides his obvious talent at putting together strong narrative and tapping into the contemporary subculture of drugs, rowdiness, alcohol and mindless violence is "razzle-dazzle verbal energy" (McCaffery, 1985, p. 15). The three male "spirits" as McCaffery calls them are out and about on a warm June night looking for "the heart of a Saturday night." They are "bored, drunk, clad in torn-up leather jackets" and definitely fairly typical suburban adolescents hoping to stir up some mischief. They get all they can handle and more.
McCaffery references Springsteen's lyrics (which many scholars and journalists do as they dig into this story), explaining that "…what's a fella to do when Thunder Road leads only to more housing developments and shopping malls" (p. 15). Hence, the bored teens end up at Greasy Lake, an ironic spot because the Native Americans that resided here extolled the virtues of this lake, so clean and productive for them. Now it is a mess, with used condoms, shattered glass and other items of trash like beer cans. One could posit that the crummy condition of the once-pristine lake is a metaphor for the setting and theme of this story. While the Indians were living here in a sustainable, worthy culture, taking care of their own and being productive, the teens in this yarn, and their asinine, imbecilic jerk mentality, have spoiled the human aspect of this area much as the trash and glass have degraded the lake.
The alcohol consumed by these three bad actors contributes mightily to their dull-witted search for adventure and fun. McCaffery describes the quest for fun as emitting "…the rich scent of possibility" albeit that scent "turns sour in a hurry" as a "vicious thug is mistaken for a buddy, the car keys are lost," there is a bloody fight and a tire iron is used in the fracas (p. 15). After a skull gets cracked the narrator takes a dive into the "primal ooze of Greasy Lake itself," McCaffery explains. While in that grossly slimy lake, the narrator hears his parents station wagon being trashed, and worse yet, he has "a grisly encounter with the corpse of a dead biker" (p. 15).
As to the story's various mistakes that lead to disaster for the adolescents, trying to hold on to a glass of gin in one hand and a roach clip in the other was "the first mistake" these dumb and dumber characters would make, according to the narrator. The narrator dropped his car keys in his eagerness to check out his friend Tony, who was thought to be having sex with his girlfriend in the back seat. Maybe they would see a little "tit" and perhaps "roughhouse a little" and go from there, Boyle writes. However, this reader begs to differ with the narrator; the boys' first mistake was getting drunk and smoking pot, which clouded their judgment (which probably wasn't all that sharp in the first place). Their second mistake, according to this reader, was pulling up behind the 1957 mint Chevy, flashing bright lights and honking the horn. The narrator made the third mistake when he bent down to fine his keys.
At this point in the story, Boyle reminds readers that this story takes place in the middle of the Vietnam War, which, for any reader that was alive and listening to what was happening in the world and to American youth, helps to set the tone and theme. It was an age of rebellion, of burning draft cards in protest, of marijuana becoming the drug of choice for millions of young people (not exclusively hippies, notwithstanding some of the journalism from that era), and of Walter Cronkite bringing the latest body count from Vietnam on the evening TV news.
In any event, the dropping of the keys to his parents' station wagon reminded the narrator of the "tactical error" that General William Westmorland made by asking U.S. soldiers and marines to dig in at a bloody outpost in Vietnam known as Khe Sanh in the late 1960s. This reader vigorously disagrees with narrator's assertion was as "damaging and irreversible" as Westmorland's wrongheaded decision at Khe Sanh. A trio of drunken adolescent idiots getting their butts kicked soundly beside a trashed lake is but a soft burst of wind while the slaughter of American forces in Vietnam was a hurricane, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown comparatively speaking.
Meantime, the car keys. "Like a fool…" (oh how right you are narrator) "… I'd gone down on one knee" in search of the keys and suddenly "the steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth," and that was just the beginning. The long and short of it is that the narrator went for the tire iron he kept in the car and brought it down on the head of the steel-toed challenger. While he lay there in the mud his girlfriend ("the fox") dressed in panties and a man's shirt attacked the three stooges. At this point the author adds some descriptive narrative that stretches credulity (in a more exaggerated way than other passages in his story). The young girl is running toward them, they are drunk and stoned and their adrenalin is running a thousand miles a second. How could her toenails have "flashed in the glare of the headlights"?
This is apparently an attempt by Boyle to add a bit of sensuality to the otherwise brutal and bloody scene. "Sure," the narrator explains, "the gin and the cannabis and even the Kentucky Fried may have had a hand in it, but it was the sight of those flaming toes that set us off… lipstick smeared on a child…" (Boyle). Moreover, why would the three dumb-dumbs be "…on her like Bergman's deranged brothers… panting, wheezing, tearing at her clothes, grabbing for flesh"? Why would they be sexually aroused after such a violent engagement? Logic tells the reader they would be getting out of there as quickly as they could flee. Anyway, in a flash they are ripping at her shirt and panties, the author explains, but if the steel-toed tough guy had been seriously having sex with her why would they need to remove her "spandex brassiere"; quite likely in the heat of a desperate moment, she wouldn't bother putting that back on, she would wrap the shirt and slip into her panties and run to her boyfriend's aid.
The story continues on its depressing downward plunge, and in fact the narrator falls headfirst into the "buoyant black mass," blond-headed fraternity types show up and destroy the narrator's parents car after the girl with those wild, young women in a Mustang show up to find the biker (dead in the water) and the narrator describes the three stooges as "zombies, like war veterans, like deaf-and-dumb pencil peddlers" (Boyle). He missed out on one word: they were dumb-and-dumb drunken stoners.
Critic Michael Walker starts out his essay on Boyle's short story by referencing a critique of the classic "exploitation bike movie" The Wild Angels. The critique was by Joan Didion in her essay "Notes Toward a Dreampolitick." In that motorcycle outlaw take, starring Peter Fonda, a gang raises hell in a small town by raping and killing and leaving the town in shambles. As the rowdy gang stands at the gravesite of a person they murdered, and, according to Didion's essay, is "…uncertain how to mark the moment, Peter Fonda shrugs. 'Nothing to say,' he says" (Walker, 1994, p. 247). Walker uses this passage from Didion's essay of The Wild Angels to point out the "moral emptiness" of the motorcycle gang.'" For those characters, Walker asserts, "there is nothing to be learned from human experience; there is nothing to say" (p. 247).
However, that film does verify that even "schlock" stories have a habit of "revealing something about the essence of human life, bad or good" Walker continues (p. 247). Having led…