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Summary and Analysis of T.C. Boyle's "Greasy Lake"

L C David is an English teacher at a state university. She enjoys writing about her experiences.

The polluted water of Greasy Lake was a symbol.

The polluted water of Greasy Lake was a symbol.

Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle

The story of "Greasy Lake" sets itself up as a typical "rebel without a cause" short story. It has three rebellious teenagers looking for trouble on a summer evening—and finding it. Boyle tells us, through the narrator, that it was a time when it was "good to be bad."

But a closer analysis of the story shows that the three boys are truly lost. The story shows the changing culture of the time—something these young men desperately want to be a part of. Yet they also lack the ability to leave the comforts of their upper-middle-class lifestyle and suburbia life.

Summary of Greasy Lake

In the story, three young men in their late teens set out on a summer night to look for trouble. Digby, Jeff and the narrator all head out for the evening in the narrator's mother's Bel Air.

The young men end up at a local hangout spot past town known as Greasy Lake. They spot a car that they think is a friend's car and decide to harass him. This ends up being a mistake, though, as the car contains a man out with his girl. His anger at being harassed leads to a fight with the three of them.

The narrator ends up hitting the man with a tire iron, knocking him out. At the time though, the three men don't know whether he is hurt or dead. As the young woman jumps out of the car to find out what is going on, the men begin attacking her in a frenzy of primal rage. But before anything happens, they are interrupted by another car coming into the parking lot. Guilty—they all run to hide.

As the narrator is waiting in the weeds and muck of the greasy water he comes across the bloated body of a corpse. Still waiting, he hears the guy they beat up wake up; after trashing the car that the young men came to the lake in, all of the others leave while the three rebels without a cause are still hiding.

As they come out of hiding to survey the damage to the car and search for and find the dropped keys, another car pulls up to the lake.

Two women get out of the car and examine a motorcycle, the only other vehicle left. They indicate that the bike belongs to a guy named Al and the narrator realizes that must be the body that he ran into out in the lake. But he doesn't say anything.

The girls ask the young men if they want to party. Even though this is what they originally set out to do, their rebellious spirit is gone. They leave the lake in the beat-up car as the narrator notes "I thought I was going to cry."

The characters in Greasy Lake seemed to have developed their sense of badness from movie images.

The characters in Greasy Lake seemed to have developed their sense of badness from movie images.

Looking Cool

The story of "Greasy Lake" breaks down the perception of what is cool and bad and shows the reality of the situation. Most likely set in the '60s, these young men of privilege think about rebelling but are unwilling to give up the safety and security of their white, suburban life.

Part of their perception of what was cool seems to have developed from movies and television. They develop affectations that they think they are supposed to have in order to be "bad." But even as the narrator is explaining how cool they are, he notes that they are in school where their parents are "allowed" to pay their tuition.

Most likely taking place during Vietnam, these 19-year-olds' high school counterparts are likely fighting in the war while the three young men's money and privilege keep them safe from the draft.


Water in literature represents spirituality and transition. The fact that the lake is "greasy" and polluted represents the murkiness of the times and the elusive badness the three young men crave so much.

As the narrator is huddling out in the water, near the bloated dead body of "Al," he breaks down. He realizes that neither he nor Digby nor Jeff are truly bad. They don't want to be. They want the image without all of the hardship.

So the narrator, for one night, truly immerses himself into the perceived life of badness that he wants and the results are that he wants to go back---back to the safety of his home, his parents, his cushioned life.

While there truly were people living that life of badness, he realizes the insecurity that leads them to that place, and the true dangers that culminate in the floating corpse of the dead motorcycle owner, are not for him.

Greasy Lake is based on Bruce Springsteen's Spirit In the Night.

Greasy Lake is based on Bruce Springsteen's Spirit In the Night.

Bruce Springsteen

The opening to Greasy Lake is a line from Springsteen's song "Spirit In the NIght." The line is "It's about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88." But the plot of the lyrics are embedded in the story.

The song includes the story of some people deciding to go up to Greasy Lake to have a good time. And some of them do have a good time, but others end up in the lake with just their socks and a shirt.

Although Springsteen's song looks at a fun and rebellious evening, the structure of the story can be matched to the lyrics. Boyle took the experience, though, and examined it from the other side and through the pain of darker memories and events.

Perception vs. Reality

A close reading of "Greasy Lake" reveals a struggling group of friends who are unsure about their identify or how they fit into the changing society. Feeling guilt at their own lives of luxury, they seek to fit in with the counter culture revolution.

But a quick dip into that greasy lake of decadence shows that they are not prepared for the true realities of what it means to be bad.

Boyle's story is a complex character analysis with a deep message. Neither the water nor the characters are clean, but only one is truly polluted.

Look at "Greasy Lake" as a story about perceived reality vs. the truth and you will understand the depth of the story, the characters and the plot.

Test Your Knowledge of "Greasy Lake"

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What kind of car do they drive up to Greasy Lake?
    • Station Wagon
    • Bel Air
    • Corvette
    • Trans Am
  2. What school does Digby attend?
    • He is in high school.
    • He doesn't go to any school.
    • Harvard
    • Cornell
  3. What does he claim to mix with grape juice?
    • gin
    • vodka
    • beer
    • moonshine
  4. T or F: The narrator throws his keys in the lake when he gets out of the car?
    • True
    • False
  5. T or F: The car they see at the lake is their friend, Tony Lovett's car.
    • True
    • False
  6. How does the narrator knock out the man at greasy lake?
    • With the end of a gun
    • With a tire iron
    • With his keys
    • With his fist
  7. Why do the men stop assaulting the woman?
    • Another car comes up.
    • A man on a motorcycle shows up
    • They get tired
    • Her friend wakes up
  8. What does the narrator find while he is hiding in the lake?
    • a frog
    • a motorcycle
    • a body
    • a car
  9. T or F: The trans am owner slashes the narrator's tires.
    • True
    • False
  10. What is the name of the man that the women at the end of the story are looking for?
    • Al
    • Ed
    • Jake
    • Carl

Answer Key

  1. Bel Air
  2. Cornell
  3. gin
  4. False
  5. False
  6. With a tire iron
  7. Another car comes up.
  8. a body
  9. False
  10. Al

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 3 correct answers: You might want to re-read the story.

If you got between 4 and 6 correct answers: You're doing okay but re-read the story to understand the main points.

If you got between 7 and 8 correct answers: You can do better. Re-read the story and pay attention to details.

If you got 9 correct answers: Good job. You understood the main plot points. It never hurts to re-read.

If you got 10 correct answers: Great work. You paid attention to the details of the story.

Inspired by Bruce Springsteen's "Spirit In the Night"


Barry Hammons on September 03, 2019:

I have always wondered at the scars inflicted on these young men. Are they haunted in their futures?

LRR on June 20, 2018:

We finished reading this in my English class. So much depth, reality, and metaphor in such a short story. Highly recommended! I also hadn't recognized Springsteen's song in correlation with this story. Great summary.

L C David (author) from Florida on February 20, 2017:

It's fantastic. I definitely recommend checking it out!

Rachael Lefler from Illinois on February 14, 2017:

Wow, I only clicked on this one because it's related to one of my own Hubs but this story sounds interesting!

A on October 29, 2014:

This is really good summary

L C David (author) from Florida on February 08, 2014:

There are great resources out there to help you understand point of view. First person point of view means that one character is telling the story. Third person usually means that the story is not told through a narrator. Look for possessive words such as "I," "We," and "Us" to figure out if you have a narrator speaking.

For verb tense, look for the verbs and helping verbs in the sentences. If the helping verbs say "am" then it is present tense. If the helping verbs are "was" or "were" then it is past tense. But tenses could shift from past to present and back so watch for those moments.

Is the story being told as it happens or is it being told about something that happened in the past to the characters? Do verbs end in "ed" or is it a flashback and told in present tense. Isolating the verbs should give you your answer.

There are more great resources about point of view and verb tenses at sites like Purdue Online Writing Lab.

lala on February 08, 2014:

what is the point of view and verb tense of this story