The narrator of “Greasy Lake” describes a world in which “courtesy and winning ways [are] out of style,” and in which he and his friends “cultivate decadence like a taste.” To put it bluntly, the narrator and his friends think it’s cool to be bad. This story explores the allure of danger through the narrator’s retelling of a truly dangerous night that he and his friends passed at Greasy Lake, ultimately concluding that the cool sheen of danger they sought is far different from the reality of danger, which can be depraved and terrifying.
In the story’s opening passages, the narrator describes the way he and his friends moved through their world at the time: “We were all dangerous characters then,” he says. “We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine.” This description captures how the narrator and his friends are, in many ways, just playacting at being dangerous. They don’t have a clue of what they’re doing: they’re not even sure if whatever they’re sniffing is cocaine, but they sniff it anyway to cement their “badness” and reaffirm their so-called commitment to living dangerously. The absurdity of their charade only increases when the narrator and his friends think they are playing a prank on one of their acquaintances, only to find themselves face-to-face with a truly Bad Character, fighting a serious fight by doing ineffectual kung-fu moves against someone who actually intends to harm them. The fight leads to the narrator running away from the danger only to encounter an actual dead body. These experiences of real, physical danger and the sight of the body (a representation of the consequences of living dangerously) shatter the narrator’s idea that danger is cool and alluring. Danger, it turns out, is not thrilling, but terrifying and awful, leading to death and despair.
Witnessing the bad characters behaving dangerously at Greasy Lake is terrifying enough for the narrator, but when he and his friends dip into depraved, dangerous behavior themselves, they really come to recognize that they are in moral and physical peril. Though it’s never stated explicitly, the narrator and his friends seem to understand that their “badness” is just a phase—Digby’s father pays for his education at Cornell, and the narrator drives his mother’s station wagon, both of which point to their ability to return to their middle class lives. But when they end up in a fight with the Bad Character and bring him down together, the fear that they have actually committed murder forces them to realize how quickly their posturing can slip into true badness. When The Fox, the Bad Character’s companion, emerges from the car, the boys attack her and are only stopped from raping her when another car arrives. There is every reason to believe that they would have followed through with the atrocious act had no one else come to the lake. Because of this, when the narrator, fleeing all of this danger and badness, encounters the dead body, he faces a double horror: the horror that his “badness” could have gotten him killed, as well as the deeper horror that he, too, has the capacity to behave unforgivably.
The morning after these events, the narrator and his friends find their missing car keys and attempt to drive away, but a silver Mustang pulls up to Greasy Lake and two “stoned or drunk” women approach the boys, ready to “party.” This—the prospect of girls and drugs—was exactly the sort of thing that the boys had been looking for and even dreaming of on their way up to the lake. Now, though, the narrator and his friends are so shaken by their experience that they are “rigid as catatonics.” They turn the women down and drive away, and as the narrator looks back, he sees one woman “watching [them], her shoulders slumped, hand outstretched.” She is just another casualty of the “badness” the boys so desperately wanted to embody. She is pathetic and destroyed, her allure stripped away entirely.
Danger 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.
There was no reasoning with this bad greasy character—clearly he was a man of action.
A single second, big as a zeppelin, floated by. We were standing over him in a circle, gritting our teeth, jerking our necks. No one said anything. Already [I was] envisioning the headlines, the pitted faces of the police inquisitors, the gleam of handcuffs, clank of bars, the big black shadows rising from the back of the cell.
We were bad characters, and we were scared and hot and three steps over the line—anything could have happened.
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?
“Hey, you guys look like some pretty bad characters—been fightin’, huh?”