At the start of the story, the narrator explains that Greasy Lake has gone from being a remarkable natural landmark (noted for the “clarity” of its waters) to a complete cesspool. “Glittering broken glass” and “beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires” line the lake’s edge. As Greasy Lake has grown more and more physically polluted, the behavior of those who live around it and visit it has grown polluted, too. Where once people might have gone to the lake to experience the beauty of nature, now the narrator and those like him go because of the prospect of “a girl tak[ing] off her clothes and plung[ing] into the festering murk,” or the possibility of getting drunk, high, and “howl[ing] at the stars.” The narrator states that “this [was] nature.” His comment—that doing drugs and partying at a polluted, “festering” lake is “nature”—highlights just the opposite: that the narrator is so estranged from nature that he can’t even recognize it.
Through the way that the narrator and his friends and acquaintances treat and regard the lake, as well as through the physical descriptions of its decline, T.C. Boyle makes Greasy Lake into a visual and emotional metaphor for the struggle between nature and industry. Even though the narrator doesn’t provide a detailed physical description of the town, the limited description he does provide gives the sense that overdevelopment and industrial runoff have sunk into the town’s physical and psychic landscape. For instance, the narrator describes the town as being little more than “housing developments and shopping malls” that line the main “strip.” The story also subtly connects this polluted and despoiled version of nature to the “pollution” of the people who live within it. The narrator describes himself and his friends as being surrounded by places to spend money and have fun but being unable to enjoy them—the characters are enclosed within a town that features strip malls, plentiful housing, and many bright attractions, yet they still feel an inescapable sense of boredom, emptiness, and aimlessness. In other words, the town’s developments provide amusement but not fulfilment, and it is implied that the resulting emptiness and the need to fill it are what drive the characters in “Greasy Lake” toward “badness.”
The price of industry is the destruction of nature, and the dark undercurrent of that tradeoff lurks just beneath the surface of “Greasy Lake.” The lake’s physical condition—frequented by various “greasy characters,” such as women strung out on drugs, or the dead body rotting at its edge—mirrors and symbolizes the moral and social condition of the town in which the story is set. Further, in connecting the degradation of the lake to the degradation of the town around it as clearly as he does, Boyle suggests the ill effects that unfettered development and industry can have on a place. Though such development is seen as important in America, Boyle seems to be arguing that development does not necessarily equal improvement.
Nature vs. Development ThemeTracker
Nature vs. Development Quotes in 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?