From an unknown point in the future, an unnamed narrator looks back on his “dangerous” youth. He describes a time “when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, [and] it was good to be bad.” He and his friends, he says, “cultivated decadence like a taste.” In order to appear “bad,” they wore torn and tough clothes, raced their parents’ station wagons, and “struck elaborate poses to show that [they] didn’t give a shit about anything.” The baddest thing of all the bad things they did, the narrator says, was going up to Greasy Lake.
The narrator’s reminiscences about his youth are tied to the themes of danger, inaction, and the pull of the past. Throughout the story, the narrator will relay—not without shame and embarrassment—the ways in which he and his friends tried to be “bad,” unaware of the dangers associated with plunging oneself into a false image—especially such a risky one. As the story will show, the reality of being “dangerous” turns out to be far less glamorous than the narrator could have imagined.
The narrator recalls that Greasy Lake was located “through the center of town, up the strip, past the housing developments and shopping malls.” Greasy Lake was once clear and beautiful, but by the time of the narrator’s youth, it was “fetid and murky,” littered with trash and refuse, and the island at the center of it was “stripped [and] strafed” of vegetation. The allure of Greasy Lake, the narrator recalls, was the fact that “everyone went there.” At the lake, there was always a “rich scent of possibility on the breeze,” the possibility being the opportunity to “watch a girl take off her clothes and plunge into the festering murk” or to get drunk, high, and “howl at the stars against the primeval [noises] of frogs and crickets. This,” the narrator says, “was nature.”
The narrator’s concept of what constitutes “nature” is deeply skewed. In his hometown, the true hallmarks and value of nature have both been obscured by overdevelopment, resulting in the narrator and his friends’ sense of boredom, restlessness, and searching for something they’re unable to find. It’s clear that from whatever point the narrator is at in his future, he can see clearly that Greasy Lake was not and is not representative of “nature,” and he uses over-the-top language to demonstrate the irony of having ever thought it was.
The narrator reflects, in particular, on one night at the lake. He was there, he says satirically, “in the company of two dangerous characters,” with his friends Digby—who wears a “gold star” earring and “allow[s] his father to pay his tuition at Cornell”—and Jeff, who is “thinking of quitting school to become a painter/musician/head-shop owner.” Both of the narrator’s friends are comfortably middle class, as he himself is, and, to demonstrate their desire to be seen as bad, they wear “mirror shades at breakfast and dinner [and] in the shower.”
The narrator, looking back on his youth, knows that he and his friends were in no way “dangerous,” though they were making every effort to appear that way. The narrator and his friends, all coming from privileged backgrounds, felt the aesthetic allure of appearing “bad,” but were blissfully unaware of the actual dangers lurking below the surface of their hometown.
The narrator, in his mother’s Bel Air, drives Digby and Jeff out to Greasy Lake. It is the third night of summer vacation, and the boys are restless, having been out “looking for something [they] never found” two nights in a row. After having “cruised the strip sixty-seven times” and stopped in “every bar and club in a twenty-mile radius,” the boys have decided that there is “nothing to do” besides getting drunk on gin up at Greasy Lake.
The boys’ boredom is, Boyle implies, tied directly to the overdevelopment of their town and the eradication of nature. The twisted American dream of excess is the culprit, and in the face of that dream the boys turn, foolishly, to places like Greasy Lake in hopes of finding danger—anything to make them feel something.
As the boys pull into the dirt lot at the edge of the lake, they notice a metallic blue ’57 Chevy in mint condition parked there. “On the far side of the lot,” the narrator observes, there is an abandoned “chopper.” The narrator is disappointed to find only “some junkie biker and a car freak pumping his girlfriend,” and he and his friends realize that they are not “about to find whatever it was [they were] looking for at Greasy Lake.”
The narrator knows immediately that Greasy Lake will not fulfill his and his friends’ needs for connection or engagement with the world around them, but chooses to stay anyway—perhaps unable to resist the allure of danger. The narrator, reflecting on this moment, is helpless to warn his younger self of what’s to come as a consequence of their decision to stay.
Digby exclaims that the Chevy is “Tony Lovett’s car,” and honks the Bel Air’s horn. The narrator, at Digby’s suggestion, turns on the brights. The boys revel in the hilarity of their prank, excited to catch Tony with his pants down and give him a fright. The boys all jump out of the car, hoping to scare Tony and maybe “catch a glimpse of some little fox’s tit, [and then] go on to new heights of adventure and daring.”
The boys, in a rare moment of decisive action, are inspired to pull a “dangerous” prank—this is their idea of “badness.” The boys have no idea what is in store for them—the completion of their prank is, in their minds, a “new height,” a fact which speaks to their sheltered naiveté and inability to confront any real danger.
The narrator interrupts the story’s flow to highlight two of his major mistakes. The first, he says, “was losing [his] grip on the keys” and dropping them in the “dark, mysterious nighttime grass.” The second “was identifying the Chevy [in the first place] as Tony Lovett’s.”
The narrator, as he relays the story of the night at Greasy Lake, is awash in the stupidity—and inevitability—of his own past mistakes. He can see them clearly now, as well as the danger they led to, but is powerless to change them.
A “very bad greasy character” emerges from the Chevy—which is a “much lighter” blue, the boys realize, “than the robin’s-egg of Tony’s car.” The Bad Character was “clearly a man of action,” the narrator recalls with more than a hint of sarcasm, detailing how the man immediately began doling out “lusty Rockette kick[s]” as the narrator crouched in the grass, looking for his missing keys.
This is the boys’ first encounter with anything remotely dangerous. They are star-struck, absorbed, and enraptured as the “bad character” brutally attacks them. The narrator scrounges for his keys, which symbolize his innocence and ties to home, but is in the midst of a life-altering experience over which he has lost all control, and cannot find them.
While the Bad Character kicks the narrator savagely, Digby steps in to deliver “a savage kung-fu blow,” employing a move he learned in a “course in martial arts for phys-ed credit.” The Bad Character, “unimpressed,” flattens Digby with one blow. Jeff then leaps onto the Bad Character’s back, savagely biting his ear. The narrator reaches into the Bel Air for the tire iron he keeps under the driver’s seat “for just such an occasion as this,” despite never having been involved in a real fight and having only ever used the tire iron to actually change tires.
The boys’ attempts to fight off the Bad Character further reveal their naiveté and ineptitude. They are in over their heads, though they are still attempting to prove their “badness” and ability to handle a dangerous situation. However, the narrator’s remark that Digby had learned his kung-fu moves in gym class is a satirical acknowledgement of exactly how unprepared the friends were for the trouble they had found themselves in.
Though “terrified,” the narrator brings the tire iron down on the Bad Character’s head. “The effect [is] instantaneous,” and the Bad Character, like a “balloon [up against] a man with a straight pin, collapse[s.]” The narrator, Digby, and Jeff stand silently over the Bad Character’s unconscious body. The narrator can “already envision the headlines, the gleam of handcuffs, [his] cell.”
The narrator has committed himself both to danger and to action by attacking the Bad Character, and the silence that falls over the group as he loses consciousness instantaneously reveals their inability to cope with the reality of the quickly-deteriorating situation . The narrator is full of childlike fear as he envisions the consequences of what he’s done. His thoughts spin nervously out of control in a very un-“bad” way.
A scream rips through the silence of the dark night—it is The Fox, emerging from the Chevy “barefoot [and] dressed in panties and a man’s shirt.” She runs, with clenched fists, toward the boys, calling them “animals” for attacking her partner, the Bad Character. The narrator takes in her silver anklet, her painted toenails, and her blow-dried hair. “It was the toenails that did it,” the narrator says, before describing how he, Digby, and Jeff leapt upon her, “deranged, panting, tearing at her clothes, grabbing for flesh. We were bad characters [at last.]”
On the way to the lake the boys had hoped to catch a glimpse of a naked girl, just as they’d hoped to encounter some danger. After actually confronting danger and finding themselves unprepared, they are equally unprepared to actually encounter a half-naked woman—they attack and nearly rape her, so wrapped up are they in their fantasies of “badness” and their sudden escape from inaction. It seems the three friends have bitten off more than they can chew in seeking out danger as a cure for their boredom.
A car “[swings] into the lot,” catching the boys in their state of “lust and greed and primal badness.” The boys run to the Bel Air, but they quickly realize that, due to the missing keys, they have no way of starting it. Digby and Jeff bolt, and the narrator runs across the dirt lot to the lake’s edge. He can hear The Fox’s screams in the night. He pushes on into the water, planning to “swim for it” to the woods on the other side of the lake. Once he is waist-deep, he feels something “obscene, soft, [and] wet” in his path; he reaches out to touch it, and “it [gives] like flesh.” Realizing that he has encountered a water-bloated dead body, the narrator “stumble[s] back in horror,” overwhelmed by the increasingly dangerous events of the night, and lamenting his loss of the keys. The narrator loses his balance and falls onto the corpse, then leaps from the water, but not before catching a horrific glimpse of the corpse’s face.
The boys are still cowards at heart—the opposite of dangerous characters, still mired in indecisiveness and inaction. At the height of his fear, the narrator seeks refuge in Greasy Lake. As he is about to plunge himself into its waters in a kind of reverse baptism—cloaking himself in danger and murk—he encounters a dead body, and realizes that he is, both literally and metaphorically, “in too deep” with his fantasy of “badness.” The narrator sees the corpse’s face and, in it, he sees a possible fate that awaits him at the end of his own descent into danger. He realizes at last just how serious the consequences of his playacting could become. His desire to flee back to safety is symbolized by his yearning to find the car keys.
The narrator, realizing he has made some noise with all his thrashing, hears The Fox telling someone: “It’s them: they tried to rape me!” A voice with a Midwestern accent screams out a threat; “then another voice, harsh[ly]” screams out, “Motherfucker!” The narrator realizes, with great relief, that it is the voice of the Bad Character; he is not dead after all. The Bad Character continues to shout curses into the night.
The narrator cowers in fear from the consequences of his stupid and dangerous actions, relieved that he has not killed the Bad Character like he’d feared. He’s not grateful so much that the Bad Character is alive, though, as he is that he himself will not have to face any real consequences.
The narrator stays hidden in the underbrush, and listens tensely as the sound of “door[s] slam[ming] and headlights shattering” fill the silence. He peeks through the underbrush and realizes that the Bad Character is, with the narrator’s own tire iron and with the help of two blond men, destroying the narrator’s mother’s Bel Air. The Fox begs the Bad Character to stop, pleading with him and calling him “Bobbie.” Eventually he listens to her, gets into the Chevy with her, and drives off. The two blond men, left behind and seeming spooked by their own destructive actions, get back into their Trans Am and depart as well.
The narrator is stuck hiding, having crawled back into the realm of inaction after having attempted to be a “man of action” and finding that he was unable to handle it. He listens as the Bad Character, The Fox, and the two Blond Men wreck the Bel Air—retribution for his foolhardy flirtation with danger. The immediate danger of the evening seems to be dissipating when they drive off, but the narrator’s sense of freedom and fearlessness—represented by the Bel Air—has been destroyed.
The narrator lies in the grass and “primordial ooze” for an indeterminate length of time. He “contemplate[s] suicide” and tries to think of “an excuse to give [his] parents.” After lamenting his own dire circumstances, the narrator’s thoughts turn to the dead body. He realizes that the dead body is “worse off” by far, and that he must have been “the owner of the chopper, a bad older character, another headline.” The narrator realizes that even though his mother’s car is destroyed, he still has his life.
As the narrator catastrophizes, he remembers the relative cushiness of his own life, highlighted in the face of encounters with real danger, death, and destruction. For all his melodramatic musing, the narrator is grateful to be alive, and experiences a profound realization concerning the foolishness and very real danger of his attempts at appearing “bad.”
As dawn begins to break, the narrator stands and returns to his mother’s car. He takes stock of the extensive damage, and Digby and Jeff “emerge from [their hiding place in] the trees.” Both boys are beaten badly, and their clothes are torn. Jeff begins to clean broken glass out of the front seat of the car, and Digby remarks that “at least they didn’t slash the tires.” All three boys work to clean out the car’s interior. The narrator does not mention the dead body in the lake, or his belief that it is the body of the man who owns the motorcycle parked nearby, while they clean in silence. He reaches into his pocket for the car keys once some of the damage has been cleaned up, and remembers with a “nasty stab of recollection” that they went missing. He spots them, though, “no more than five feet” away, “glinting like jewels.” The narrator sits in the driver’s seat and starts the car up.
The boys, each embarrassed and struck dumb by the night’s dangerous and demoralizing events, take part in a collective action—cleaning out the damaged husk of the car which once represented their freedom and independence. Having realized that they are not as mature, self-sufficient, or “dangerous” as they’d believed themselves to be, the boys must now figure out who they are to each other and what their relationship will be based on now that their collective self-image of “badness” has been revealed to be hollow. The narrator, having found his keys, can be the one who returns all of them to home and to safety.
A “silver Mustang with flame decals” pulls into the lot. Digby and Jeff get into their car and close the doors. The Mustang parks next to the motorcycle, and Digby urges the narrator to drive away, but he remains frozen.
The narrator is so shaken by his brief and disastrous attempt at being a “man of action” that he now seems paralyzed, unable even to flee when faced with the prospect of another confrontation.
Two girls step out of the car, dressed in “tight jeans [and] stiletto[s.]” They inspect the motorcycle and call for someone named “Al.” Digby again presses the narrator to drive away. Just then, one of the girls—the narrator thinks she looks “older”—walks unsteadily toward the boys; the narrator observes that there is “something wrong with her: she [is] either stoned or drunk.”
The boys, in the harsh light of day, are now forced to reckon not only with the folly of their actions, but with the folly of their thoughts and fantasies—the girls they’d hoped to encounter, seen up close, are “wrong” and represent the shattering of the boys’ illusions and desires.
The Older Girl asks the boys if any of them have seen “Al,” and they tell her that they haven’t—the narrator cannot bring himself to speak up about what he believes “Al”’s fate to be. The Older Girl tells the boys that they “look like some pretty bad characters,” and she then offers them a handful of unmarked tablets, asking if they want to “party.” The narrator, feeling as if he is about to cry, doesn’t answer her. Digby, on all three of the boys’ behalves, refuses the drugs. The narrator then puts the car in gear and begins to drive away. As he does, he looks back in the rearview mirror and sees the Older Girl “still standing there, her shoulders slumped, hand outstretched.”
The narrator knows that the dead body is probably “Al,” but is unable to relay this to the Older Girl; he is unable, too, to accept her invitation to “party.” He is once again stuck in a rut of inaction, though now his inaction is the product of vastly different circumstances than at the story’s beginning. As the narrator drives away from Greasy Lake, the specter of the girl—and the ruination of all that the narrator and his friends had set out to find—lingers behind him, just as the night’s events will linger in the narrator’s memories.