28 pages • 56 minutes read
A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.
First published in The Paris Review, “Greasy Lake” (1982) is a short story by American writer Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, better known as T. C. Boyle. The story was republished as part of the collection Greasy Lake and Other Stories, has been widely anthologized, and inspired a 1988 short film adaptation. Told through the perspective of an unnamed young narrator, the story concerns a single, violent night at the eponymous Greasy Lake that alters three boys’ perception of themselves as “bad” and “dangerous.” In its depiction of disaffected youth in 1960s America, it explores themes of Nature Versus Nurture and Male Violence, Loss of Innocence, and Capitalism and the Environment.
This guide refers to the e-book version of Greasy Lake and Other Stories, published by Viking Penguin in 1985.
Get access to this full Study Guide and much more!
Content Warning: The source material contains graphic violence and attempted rape as well as references to drug use.
“Greasy Lake” opens with an epigraph: “It’s about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88” (8). This is a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 song “Spirit in the Night,” which is about a group of troublemakers who go to a fictional place called Greasy Lake to drink, take drugs, and party.
The SuperSummary difference
Boyle’s story takes place at the fictional Greasy Lake, which lies just outside of the town where the three main characters live. The narrator explains that he and his friends (later introduced as Digby and Jeff) are intentionally “bad.” Everything they do—the way they talk, drive, eat, and carry themselves—they do for the sake of being perceived as dangerous. One of their favorite activities is going to Greasy Lake, once a place of pristine beauty that is now polluted and trashed. The boys go there at night to seek debauchery and adventure; they drink, get high, and pursue women. The narrator declares that “this [is] nature” (9).
One night, the narrator, Jeff, and Digby head to Greasy Lake after everything has closed and they have exhausted all other means of entertaining themselves. When they arrive, they see another car pull into the lot, and Jeff assumes that it is their friend Tony’s car. Jeff tells the narrator to flash his lights at Tony. The narrator loses his keys in the grass as he gets out of the car to join his friends in greeting Tony, who they assume has brought a date with him.
Rather than Tony, a man emerges from the car, and the boys realize they made a mistake. Apparently irritated by the boys’ prying, the man becomes violent and kicks the narrator in the face. A fight breaks out between the strange man and the three boys.
The narrator has not been in a fight since the sixth grade, and Digby only knows how to fight because of a martial arts class. After the strange man knocks out Digby with a single blow, the narrator remembers he keeps a tire iron beneath the driver’s seat of his mother’s Bel Air, the car the boys drove to Greasy Lake. The narrator knocks the strange man to the ground by hitting him in the head with the tire iron. The man falls still, and the boys believe him to be dead.
Suddenly, a young woman in a T-shirt and underwear emerges from the strange man’s car and walks toward the boys, screaming at them in anger. The boys, defeated and afraid, attempt to regain power in their moment of humiliation by attempting to rape the woman. They grab her to pin her down but are interrupted by the headlights of another car approaching.
Digby and Jeff run off, and the narrator heads for the lake. While wading through the water, the narrator comes into contact with a floating corpse, which only deepens his panic. He can overhear a couple of men talking to the young woman, who tells them that the narrator, Jeff, and Digby attempted to rape her. The new men threaten to kill the narrator and his friends and call out for them. To the narrator’s relief, he eventually hears the voice of the man he thought he killed. Instead of going after the boys, the men destroy the exterior of the narrator’s car and fill it with nearby garbage.
The boys wait until morning light to return to the car. By then, the strange men and the young woman have left. Since the tires remain intact, the narrator, Jeff, and Digby can leave. The narrator finds his keys just a few feet from the driver’s side door. He and his friends are removing glass and trash from the car seats when a Mustang arrives with two women inside. The boys are about to drive off, but the narrator hesitates. One woman, who seems to be intoxicated, gets out of the Mustang and approaches the boys’ car. She asks after a man named Al. The narrator believes Al is the dead man in the lake but doesn’t say so. The woman offers the boys drugs and asks them if they want to party with her, but the boys are in a state of shock. The boys drive off, shaken by the night’s events, and the story ends on the image of the young woman behind them with her hand outstretched.
By T.C. Boyle