T. Coraghessan Boyle’s widely anthologized coming-of-age tale, initially published in Greasy Lake and Other Stories, tells the story of three young men— Digby, Jeff, and an unnamed narrator—who are abruptly ushered into adulthood through a painful experience at the lake of the story’s title on the third night of summer vacation. The story is set in an era that no longer values manners and polite behavior, the narrator tells us. Consequently, the characters strike “elaborate poses” designed to demonstrate how dangerous they are. Poses is the operative term here, though, for we quickly learn that these three young men are actually innocent, suburban upper-middleclass college boys whose fascination with an idealized form of decadence demonstrates how far removed they are from the real thing. These boys favor Hollywood movies and the novels of André Gide, while their wildest exploits typically involve drinking excessively and hurling raw eggs at random mail boxes. At Greasy Lake, however, the boys participate in real evil for the first time and are profoundly altered by the experience. In short, they are ushered from the world of innocence to that of experience.
After mistakenly identifying a car parked at Greasy Lake as that of their friend Tony Lovett, Digby, Jeff, and the narrator decide to play a practical joke and harass Lovett, who they suspect is having an intimate moment with his girlfriend. As they begin to flash the lights and honk the horn of the narrator’s mother’s station wagon, however, it dawns on the narrator that this car is not Lovett’s. Indeed, it is the car of a “bad greasy character” with whom the boys soon fight. During the fight, which Boyle depicts as a ritual, the narrator hits the man with a tire iron and assumes he has killed him. The boys then turn to the man’s girlfriend. As they are about to attack her, however, another car pulls into the lot and the boys disperse. The narrator dives into the lake, where he encounters a dead body and recoils in horror.
As the narrator and his friends hide in the woods, the “bad greasy character” regains consciousness; he and the boys from the second car then demolish the station wagon. Just after the vandals leave, another car drives into the lot. Two young, drug-addled women step out of the car, one of them saying to the boys, “You guys look like some pretty bad characters” (71). One woman offers the boys drugs, but the narrator, indicating his revulsion at the decadence that had once seemed so appealing, declines the offer, thinking that he “was going to cry” (71). The story concludes as he puts the wrecked and barely drivable car in gear and “creep[s] back toward the highway” (71), back toward a world of innocence that is now, we are led to believe, largely inaccessible to him.
Boyle, T. Coraghessan. “Greasy Lake.” In An Introduction to Fiction. 4th ed. Edited by X. J. Kennedy. Boston: Little, Brown.