TC Boyle's narrator and his friends are not really bad people. They’re just engaging in the kind of behavior they think is expected of them (1, 3, 4). When, on the night of the story, their rebellion backfires, throwing them into a grimmer world than they had bargained for, they feel revulsion. As is clear at the end, they have had enough of being “bad.” Like the boy in James Joyce’s “Araby,” they have grown up painfully. (For other stories of a young man’s initiation into maturity, see “A & P” and “Barn Burning.” A young woman who is similarly initiated, or seems about to be, appears in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”)
That the narrator of “Greasy Lake” grows and changes during his adventures is apparent from the two views of “nature” he voices, one in paragraph 2 and one in paragraph 32. Early in the story, “nature” was wanting “to snuff the rich scent of possibility on the breeze, watch a girl take off her clothes and plunge into the festering murk, drink beer, smoke pot, howl at the stars, savor the incongruous full-throated roar of rock and roll against the primeval susurrus of frogs and crickets.” By the end of the story, these swinish pleasures have lost their appeal.
When, at dawn, the narrator experiences the beauties of the natural world as if for the first time, he has an epiphany: “This was nature.”
Greasy Lake is the perfect setting for Boyle’s story. Like the moral view of the narrator (at first), it is as follows:
Fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires. There was a single ravaged island a hundred yards from shore, so stripped of vegetation it looked as if the air force had strafed it.” (2)
The lake is full of “primordial ooze” and “the bad breath of decay” (31). It also hides a waterlogged corpse. Once known for its clear water, the unlucky lake has fallen as far from its ideal state as the people who now frequent its shores have fallen from theirs.
Still, in its way, Greasy Lake is a force for change. Caught trying to rape the girl in the blue car, the narrator and his friends run off into the woods and into the water. Waiting in the filthy lake, the narrator is grateful to be alive and feels horror at the death of the “bad older character” whose body he meets in the slime. His growth has begun. When at the end of the story, two more girls pull into the parking lot, the subdued narrator and his friends are harmless. Cold sober and bone tired, they know they have had a lucky escape from consequences that might have been terrible. Also, the narrator knows, as the girls do not, that Al is dead, his body rotting in the lake. He won’t “turn up”—except perhaps in the most grisly way. It is this knowledge and the narrator’s new reverence for life that make him think he is going to cry.
Surely the story displays little admiration for the narrator’s early behavior, which he now regards with sarcasm, as when he says, “Digby wore a gold star in his right ear and allowed his father to pay his tuition at Cornell” (3), or when he speaks of “new heights of adventure and daring” (6). Other ironic remarks abound, showing his altered view. The maturity the narrator acquired that night seems to have been permanent.