Greasy Lake Theme
What is Greasy Lake's theme?
One theme in “Greasy Lake” is the definition of masculinity. At nineteen years of age, the three boys—the narrator, Jeff, and Digby—are almost grown up men. Their definition of “coming of age” is “wearing torn up leather jackets, sniffing glue and ether, and walking around with toothpicks in their mouths.” In short, masculinity for them is being and looking “bad.”
They spend their days lounging around Greasy Lake in search of fun and excitement of any sort. By the end of the story, however, the three come to realize what being bad really means. They make a series of mistakes that force them into a fight with a “greasy character” by the lakeside. They beat their opponent unconscious and are scared to think that they might have killed him. They almost rape their opponent’s girlfriend and have to run away when they are almost caught in the act by some people. A lot of things, that the trio only imagined or watched in action movies, happen within a single night. The boys come to realize that there are consequences to bad behavior, and masculinity can really be about being responsible for one’s actions.
There is also the theme of environmental degradation. Greasy Lake is described as “fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires.” The island that sits on the lake is “so stripped of vegetation that it looks as if the air force has strafed it.” When the narrator is forced to plunge into the depths of the lake to hide from his pursuers, he finds himself surrounded by “mats of algae.” He even spies a dead body floating on the lake. Clearly, the lake is a polluted mess. Nobody seems interested in preserving the waters of the lake or even the environment around the lake.
Greasy Lake is a coming-of-age story in that the boys mature due to the events of one night. At the beginning of the story, they want to be "bad characters", but by the end, the boys have seen what it really means to be "bad". When the girls tell them they look like bad characters, they no longer feel this is a compliment. They have learned through their suffering that playing the bad guy isn't what they thought it would be.