‘Greasy Lake’ by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Boyle, T.C. 1985

Greasy Lake by T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1985

The magic trick:

Making it clear in the beginning that the narrator and friends were phony tough guys

The narrator prefaces his reminiscence by emphasizing that he and his friends were tough. They were bad. They were dangerous. Crucially, though, Boyle undercuts these boasts with details that these so-called tough guys were, in fact, driving their “parents’ whining station wagons,” and letting their fathers pay “tuition at Cornell.”

The term studio gangster springs to mind. And so the reader moves on through the story with a picture in mind of immature college kids home on break acting tough. This is a very important distinction to make, contrasted with the mental image of true down-and-out street thugs wreaking havoc.

What is even more interesting about this contrast – at least to me – is the idea that the other characters in the story, whose perspectives we are never given, could also be similarly suburban and pampered. It’s very easy to read of the dead man in the lake, the drugged-out girls in the morning, the man in the steel-toed boots, and assume they are criminals from the fringes of society. But perhaps they are just dumb, privileged college kids too, like the narrator and his friends. The story’s intro sets everything we might assume off kilter, so nothing can be assessed from a standard viewpoint. And that’s quite a trick on Boyle’s part.

The selection:

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. When we wheeled our parents’ whining station wagons out into the street we left a patch of rubber half a block long. We drank gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai. We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gide and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.

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