Greasy Lake is the story of three friends who are bad characters. Until they run into a situation where they question, just how bad they are. Just because they act badly and look bad does not mean they are. They are teenagers in a period, “when courtesy and winning ways [are] out of style when it [is] good to be bad, when they [cultivate] decadence like a taste.” (112) They look bad, wearing torn-up leather jackets, slouching around with toothpicks in their mouths and wearing their shades morning, noon and night. They have the attitude, they drive their parents cars fast, and burn rubber as the pull out of the driveway. They have the bad habits. They drink “gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai, [sniff] glue, and ether and what somebody [claims] [is] cocaine.”(112) What starts out as a harmless prank on the third night of their summer vacation turns into a situation where they get into a fight, attempt to rape a girl, find a dead body and see first hand the destruction a bad character can do to an automobile.
The night they lose their “badness” is nothing special. After the requisite bad character activities: egging mailboxes and hitchhikers, driving up and down Main Street, eating, drinking, and smoking pot. They decide to go up to the local hangout, *u*Greasy Lake*/u*, to see if anything is going on. They cruise up to the lake with their “lemon-flavored gin,” requisite pot and the itch for some action. There is no better place, for these three bad characters to hang out – *u*Greasy Lake*/u*, is an important place for bad characters to learn an important lesson. The lake, like the events about to unfold, is “fetid and murky…mud banks glistened with broken glass [,] strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires.” (112) There are only two vehicles in the whole parking lot, “the exoskeleton of some gaunt chrome insect, a chopper leaned against its kickstand.” (113) And a, “57 Chevy, mint, metallic blue.” (113) No excitement, “expect some junkie halfwit biker and a car freak pumping his girlfriend.” Whatever they are looking for they are not going to find it up at the lake. All of a sudden, they see a friend’s car. This is all the three need to know; now things will get interesting, maybe it is not a wasted trip after all. They flash the headlights and honk the horn, a harmless prank to pull on a friend, “for all we [know] we might even catch a glimpse of some little fox’s tit. And then we [could] slap backs with red-faced Tony, roughhouse a little, and go on to new heights of adventure and daring.” (113) In their haste for a little excitement and adventure, they fail to realize it is not Tony’s car after all, but someone else’s car. This is the second mistake. The first is dropping the car keys in the grass.
The owner of the car, a greasy booted character, does not find this childish prank funny. He comes out of the car, with fists flying, feet kicking. He is not about to let these guys get away with this so-called harmless prank. This guy is bad; he takes on all three of the friends, and thoroughly beats them up. Even after this, they still think they are bad. “[He] [goes] for the tire iron under the car seat.” (114) The narrator still holds onto the idea he is bad, “[He] [keeps] it there because bad characters always keep tire irons under the driver’s seat, for just such an occasion as this.” (114) Everything the narrator thinks is associated with the image of being bad. The reality is this guy has used the tire iron, not for other fights, but to change a flat tire. As for fighting, this bad character has been in only one other fight in his life “in the 6th grade, when a kid with a sleepy eye and two streams of mucous [descending] from his nostrils hit me in the knee with a Louisville slugger.” (114)
The situation is taking on a life of it’s own, a situation the narrator cannot stop.“[The] antagonist [is] shirtless… he [bends] forward to peel Jeff from his back like a wet over coat…Mother*censored*er, he [spits] over and over, and [the narrator] is aware in that instant that all four [of them] – Digby, Jeff and [the narrator] included – [are] chanting mother*censored*er, mother*censored*er as if it were a battle cry.” (114) The adrenaline is pumping, hearts racing; the smell of fear is in the air. They are actors in a play watching from the stage, they are bad. In the heat of the moment; “[I] [go] at him like a kamikaze, mindless, raging, stung with humiliation – the whole thing, from the initial boot in the shin to this murderous primal instinct.” (114) Logic was gone; the only thing that matters is survival, survival of the baddest. He hits the greasy character on the side of his head and he goes down, a tuff of hair hanging on the edge of the tire iron. They “[are] are standing over him in a circle, gritting [their] teeth, jerking [their] necks, [their] limbs and hands and feet twitching.” (115) They are bad: they knocked out the greasy character.
All of a sudden, they hear a shriek; it is the greasy character’s girlfriend. She is standing there, and they are bad, the adrenaline and testosterone is flowing, they turn their attention to her. “We [are] bad characters, and we [are] wheezing, tearing at her clothes, grabbing for [her] flesh. We [are] bad characters and we [are] scared and hot.”(115) They [are] on her …like Bergman’s deranged brothers – see no evil – hear none, speak none.”(115) These guys are not rapists they are three 19 year olds, who due to a case of mistaken identity are heading for the edge, “we [are] 3 steps over the line and anything can happen.” (115) They never get a chance to go over the edge; a pair of headlights interrupts them. They bolt, running for the car realizing the keys are lost; they make their way to the woods. They scatter; they are not bad anymore they are scared. Being a truly bad character has its ramifications and the three are about to find out what the ramifications are.
The narrator flees into the murky water running through weeds and muck. Just when he thinks it could not get any worse, he stumbles upon the lifeless body of a dead man. It was then, standing next to a dead body the narrator starts to realize he and his friends are not as bad as they think, he is just a scared little boy. “[I’m] 19, a mere child, an infant and here in the space of five minutes I’d struck down one greasy character,” (116) not to mention the attempted rape of his girlfriend, “and blundered in to the water logged carcass of another. (116)
The narrator is alone. He has no idea where his other two bad friends went. He is alone in the dark; his only companion is the dead biker. He knows he is in trouble; the car, which interrupted the rape, is still there, which means the occupants of the car are looking for him and his two bad friends. He also knows no matter what, if they catch him, they are going to beat him up. Suddenly, he hears the sound of metal against metal; the bad greasy character is smashing his mom’s car with the tire iron, the weapon of choice for all bad characters. He feels joy and vindication; he is not a murder, “the son of a bitch [is] alive”. (116) First, the headlight then the bumper then he hears the windshield break. The two bad characters that drove up in the Trans Am, are picking up rocks, muck, garbage, and pop-tops, used condoms and throwing it all through the broken windshield. It becomes increasingly apparent these are truly bad characters.
Lying in the water next to the dead biker, he feels as bad as his surroundings. “The bad breath of decay [is] all around me, my jacket [,] heavy as a bear, the primordial ooze subtly reconstituting itself to accommodate my upper thighs and testicles. My jaws [ache], my knee [throbs], my coccyx [is] on fire,” (117) the narrator not only feels the physical side effects of his wild night of badness, he feels it emotionally as well. The weight of what he and his friends did rest heavy on him like his coat. The “breath of decay” (117) is his feelings of death, the death of an image, and the death of ideals, of who he thinks he is. The “primordial ooze” (Boyle, 117) is the feelings of regret, ugliness of what they have done. As he lies there, he also has to figure out what he is going to tell his parents about the car. “A tree [fell] on the car, I was blinded by a bread truck, hit and run, vandals got to it while we were playing chess at Digby’s” (117)
“If he is truly bad, he would not care his Mother’s car is damaged, and no car arriving would have stopped the rape. The dead body would not bother him. He would not fear getting out of the water and being beaten up. He would not need to question whether he is bad or not.” (Mr. Panza, 25 Nov. 2000) As he is sitting, there something about the nature of life is revealed to him, “It’s dark side and the limitations of being bad” (a posting by T.C. Boyle at www.tcboyle.com, Boyle’s homepage)
When they finally come out of the woods they go over the to the car and cannot believe what they see. The narrator feels, as the car looks, all battered and smashed, broken, destroyed a wreck. They go to the car and start cleaning it out. This is symbolic of what they need to do with their own lives. They need to clean up their images, they need to pick up the pieces and start over. They have to evaluate themselves. They are ashamed because they realize they have run across people who do not have to act badly, because they are bad.
As they are about to leave a Mustang drives up and one of its occupants gets out looking for the biker when she sees the three friends she say,” “Hey, you guys look like some pretty bad characters – been fighting, huh?” (119) They do not know how to answer her, yes, they have been fighting but they are not bad. Her perception of them is based on the way they look, how the car looks. She is judging them by what she sees, not of who they truly are. When the narrator thinks “I [am] going to cry.” (119) It is because he realizes: they may look and act like bad characters but they not, looks are deceiving. He and his friends learn a valuable lesson, “There will always be a character badder then they are” (a posting by T.C. Boyle at www.tcboyle.com, Boyle’s homepage) they also realize that but for an act of fate, anyone of them could be the guy floating in the lake.
The three friends learn valuable lessons from the experience they went through; never judge a book by it’s cover, never underestimate their opponents and most importantly, there truly is a difference between a bad character and a bad character wanna-be.
Panza, John, “Rough Draft Essay Response.” 25 Nov. 2000
www.tcboyle.com. Homepage. 12 Nov. 2000