Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616
The story's first person narrator writes with tongue-in-cheek irony and vivid diction about his teenaged years, as this opening quote shows:
We were dangerous characters back then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. When we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out into the street we left a patch of rubber half a block long. We drank gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai. We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gide and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.
The story will be about the narrator's awakening to the fact he and his friends are not as tough as they think. Some of this is foreshadowed or hinted at in this opening paragraph. Real tough guys don't live at home and ride around in their parent's station wagons, the quintessential middle class suburban car. Real tough guys don't go around reading Andre Gide, either. The speakers and his friends are obviously posers, privileged and protected college students who simply want to think they are "bad." The narrator pokes fun at his teenaged self's inflated self conception.
We were on her like Bergman's deranged brothers . . . panting, wheezing, tearing at her clothes, grabbing for her flesh. We were bad characters, and we were scared and hot and three steps over the line—anything could have happened.
In this chilling and unsettling passage, the three young men almost gang rape a woman they dehumanize as a "fox" and "flaming toes," even though the narrator also describes her lipstick as smeared like a child's. They are victimizing a woman as helpless as a child. The immaturity and out-of-control emotions and hormones of the three teenagers present a dangerous threat to this young woman. The narrator, however, is still living in fantasy land, likening what is happening to a scene from a Bergman movie. He is not yet adult enough to perceive he is hurting and humiliating a real person in real life.
I understood what it was that bobbed there so inadmissibly in the dark. Understood and stumbled back in horror and revulsion . . . I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here, in the space of five minutes I had struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second . . .
In this pivotal episode, the narrator, running into the lake to escape his brush with reality, hits reality again in the form of a corpse floating into the water. He has his moment of epiphany and rebirth into maturity in the water of Greasy Lake. In contrast to the swaggering self-confidence of his opening words in the story, his sense of being bad, tough, invincible, and the great adult age of nineteen, he now realizes that he is nothing but a child, an "infant," as he calls himself, only nineteen. He is, at this moment, literally and figuratively in over his head. He drops his teenaged illusions of invincibility to embrace the adult reality of his vulnerability. In the corpse, he finds a mirror of his own mortality.
I put the car in gear and inched forward with a groan, shaking off pellets of glass like an old dog shedding water after a bath, heaving over the ruts on its broken springs, creeping toward the highway.
The tone of the last paragraph of the story is far different from the adrenalin-fueled elation and terror of the bulk of the narrative. The car becomes a metaphor for the narrator, groaning, old, heaving, creeping. The excitement of the evening is over, the narrator heading home older, wiser, and sobered.
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