T.C. Boyle named Greasy Lake after a line in the 1973 Bruce Springsteen hit “Spirit in the Night,” in which Springsteen describes driving with a group of his friends toward Greasy Lake, which is a spot for fun, raucousness, drinking, and “making love in the dirt.” The Greasy Lake of Boyle’s story, by contrast, is a “stripped, strafed” and polluted basin, which is a symbol for the danger and decadence that Boyle’s characters so deeply revere. Once clear and beautiful, the lake is now a “festering” repository for trash, which underscores its degraded and corrupting qualities. Like the River Styx in Greek myth (the storied boundary between Earth and the Underworld) Greasy Lake seems to change all who step into its waters, anointing them into danger and depravity. When the narrator wades waist deep into the lake, prepared to submerge himself literally and metaphorically into the dirt and danger it represents, he is, in a way, saved by the dead body he finds floating just off the shore. The narrator had intended to fully submerge himself and swim to the “stripped” island in the middle of the lake, a journey which represents utter descent into “badness” and danger. However, after finding the body, the narrator gets out of the muddy water, leaving the swim unfinished, and instead he reckons with his foolish and immoral behavior.
Greasy Lake Quotes in Greasy Lake
There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. We were nineteen. We were bad. We struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.
Through the center of town, up the strip, past the housing developments and shopping malls: that was the way out to Greasy Lake. The Indians had called it Wakan, a reference to the clarity of its waters. Now it was 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. We went up to the lake because everyone went there, because we wanted to snuff the 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…This was nature.
It was early June, the third night of summer vacation. The first two nights we’d been out [driving around] till dawn, looking for something we never found.
In one of those nasty little epiphanies for which we are prepared by films and TV and childhood visits to the funeral home, I understood what it was that bobbed there so inadmissibly in the dark [water.] Understood, and stumbled back in horror and revulsion, my mind yanked in six different directions (I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here in the space of five minutes I’d struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second), thinking, The keys, the keys, why did I have to go and lose the keys?