Greasy Lake Setting

Discuss the setting of the story "Greasy Lake" by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s story “Greasy Lake” presents three eighteen and nineteen year old boys looking for mischief at the beginning of the summer vacation after a year of college. The self-described and unnamed dangerous character narrates the story looking back at one night that alters his life.  

Tired of driving up and down the main street of their hometown, the trio makes the first of several mistakes. As the narrator looks back on the events of this night, his tone indicates that he was not proud of his behavior and was not amused by his part in the hijinks.  

The story is set during the late 1960s.  The narrator makes a reference to the Viet Nam war and General Westmoreland’s mistake which sets the time.   The boys dress in black leather jackets typical of the bad boy look of the era. While not really doing anyone harm in the beginning of the story, later it is obvious that the boys were capable of almost anything.  These boys were bored and searching for anything that would break the monotony.  These dangerous characters had been busy throwing eggs at mailboxes and hitchhikers.

Almost everyone in his teen years has experienced a “Greasy Lake.”  It is usually the “beer bust place” or the “make-out spot” for the teenagers.  Away from the beaten path of the police, it is the fun spot for the teens.  This was the story’s Greasy Lake.

The local Native Americans called the lake Wakan, which described the water as clear. Now, the littering by the teens with glass, beer cans, and fires made the water less welcoming. At night, the lake and its surroundings seems to take on an aura of mystery. The lake smelled and was now more muddy than clear.  In the center of the lake was an island that had been stripped of its foliage during the parties filled with beer, naked girls, rock and roll music, and the sounds of nature.  

These boys were bored and searching for anything that would break the monotony.

It was 2: 00 a.m.; the bars were closing. There was nothing to do but take a bottle of lemon-flavored gin up to Greasy Lake.

These bad boys had been busy throwing eggs at mailboxes and hitchhikers. Their arrival at the parking lot of Greasy Lake and the decision to spy on a friend that they thought was partying with his girlfriend leads to a traumatic and almost tragic occurrence is the second mistake.

When the boys see a real “bad greasy character” emerging from the car and the narrator drops his car keys in the grass, the fight is on. When the narrator hits the bad character on the head, he thinks that he has killed him. 

In the dark of the lake area, the boys take on a mob persona and attack the bad guy’s girl.  Their primal urges take over; and they probably would have raped the “tainted girl” if the second car had not come on the scene. 

Running from the screaming girl, the narrator and the other boys scatter into the lake.  As the narrator goes deeper into the water, his night only gets worse when he discovers a man’s dead body.  Greasy Lake was the perfect place for the boys to hide at night.  The people in the car and the “not-dead” bad guy pommel the narrator’s parents’ car.

At the end of the story, the dawn makes everything take a new look. The air smells sweet and the summer blossoms welcome the new day with the survival of the trio. The boys survive the night and later look back with thankfulness that real harm was averted.

aridderhof | Student

Although the physical location of T. Coraghessan Boyle's "Greasy Lake" is never revealed, in terms of its historical setting, the story takes place in the late 1960s. Numerous textual clues identify the action as occuring during this time period. For instance, the narrator mentions that "Digby pounded the dashboard and shouted along with Toots & the Maytals," who were a reggae band that formed in the early 1960s. After the unnamed narrator and his two cohorts, Jeff and Digby, provoke the story's antagonist by flashing their lights and honking their car horn, presumably interrupting an intimate moment with the antagonist's girlfriend, the narrator comments that "[t]his was a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmorland's decision to dig in at Khe Sanh." The latter allusion refers to a battle between American troops and the North Vietnamese in 1967, in which General Westmorland made a tactical error in ordering the American troops to defend the area, despite its lact of political or geographical value. Although the author himself is from upstate New York, one clue in the short story regarding setting is that the narrator states that "the Indians had called it Wakan, a reference to the clarity of its waters." According to the encylopedia, "Wakan" means "sacred" or "powerful" in the Lakota Sioux language. Lastly, in a more intangible way, the setting can be said to be during the brief interlude between late-adolescence and adulthood, as the protagonist mentions at the very beginning of the story that he and his two friends are all nineteen. It is intersting to note that while he specifically states that both of his friends are in school ("Digby...allowed his father to pay his tuition at Cornell; Jeff was thinking of quitting school to become a painter/musician/head-shop proprietor"), he never identifies his own situation, other than the fac that it is "the third night of summer vacation.". Given the time period, for young men of that age, the draft was a tangible threat. That could be one reason why they "struck elaborate poses to show that we didn't give a shit about anything." In a sense then, the emphasis is less on the actual physical location of the story, and more on the emotional geography of the protagonist and his friends.