Great Stories Make Us Ask the Hard Questions

Allyson SonneAllyson Sonne is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
She is currently working towards a bachelors degree in English with
concentration in writing and communications, as well as a masters degree
in Education. She is focused on becoming a middle school English teacher post graduation.

T.C. Boyle’s short story “Greasy Lake” (1979) is a fast-paced telling of a night in the lives of three boys: Jeff, Digby and the unidentified narrator. Looking for a dangerous thrill to feed their “bad boy” images, they head to Greasy Lake. The night quickly goes from wanting to be “bad” to a situation where even the most “wanna be bad boy” would want to trade his leather jacket and cigarettes for a suit and tie. Mistaking a strange man in a car for their friend, the boys honk and pester the car until the man gets out. The narrator gives a devastating blow to the man’s head with a tire iron. The “tough guy” character emerges again within the boys as they feel accomplished; they decide to see what they can get away with by the girl in the car.

As the story goes on and the night goes on, the boys’ positions are shattered by the realization of what was actually happening. Reading this I envisioned the boys resembling John Travolta and the T-Birds in the movie Grease. Although this image is clear-cut, I feel that Boyle made the characters universal at the same time. No matter where you are from, what you look like or how old you are, the characters and the situation can be identifiable with something in your life.

Of course, I’m sure not many have smashed someone with a tire iron, ran for their life, hid in a mucky lake, or stumbled upon a dead body and a couple of stray women. At least I hope not. The point is, somewhere, sometime we have all been in a situation that just didn’t turn out how we expected. Good or bad, regretful or lesson learned, there is a well-remembered turning point on the road to maturity in all of us.

Because of the powerful message held in the story’s universal plot and identifiable characters, it is hard not to question yourself or some of your actions in certain situations. Why did I do that? Was this really worth it? What am I looking for? Maybe pondering these questions you will come across a realization like the narrator did when he realized the danger he was actually in — that he could have been the body floating in the lake — or, maybe you will not.

I think the story was great solely in the fact that it gets you thinking. That’s what a great story does. It raises questions that spill out from the page into your own life experience. You follow the characters as if you are on a quest and the experiences of the characters push you along to question your own quest.

Great stories don’t give you the answers to those questions, but they enrich your life by encouraging you to ask important questions about what it means to be a human being. And, in the process, good stories give you the hope that perhaps you can find some of those answers as you make your own way in the world. So, what do you think will help to the narrator next? Will he return to Greasy Lake soon?


15 thoughts on “Great Stories Make Us Ask the Hard Questions

  1. Interesting discussion of “Greasy Lake.” Thanks Allyson. I bet the narrator will return to Greasy Lake in about a week or so. He’s been stunned, but he’ll probably be looking for another party at the local hangout. Of course, unlike his two buddies who hid in the woods, the narrator actually immersed himself in the greasy water, and he bumped into a corpse! That might get him thinking. I hope so.

  2. Thanks for your posting, Allyson! You made your thinking about the story (and its application to other situations) very transparent. I liked what you wrote here: “Good or bad, regretful or lesson learned, there is a well-remembered turning point on the road to maturity in all of us.”

    Reading, discussing, and writing about good literature can create threads between people and help us understand more deeply some of the situations encountered in life.

    Our discussion of “Greasy Lake” yesterday with the ninth graders at the Resiliency Preparatory School in Fall River has started to weave some threads of community between and among the UMass Dartmouth students in EDU 500 and this K-12 school setting.

    Because “Greasy Lake” is one of the CLTL stories (and often the one that programs begin with…)–I am hopeful that we will have a good discussion on this site with lots of other CLTL stakeholders!

    Keep the vision,

    Maureen Hall

  3. I really liked Allyson’s posting, especially the ending questions. I believe that whether or not the boys will return to Greasy Lake is different for all of them. I believe that all of them took the experience so differently, at least between Digby and the narrator who we were showed how they acted. Digby seemed to have more of a drive to just get out of the situation, whereas the narrator was so paralyzed by his actions and his friends that he really didn’t know what to do. Also, as the end, when the girl asks about “Al”, whom we presume is the dead body in the lake, the narrator couldn’t speak until he was nudged in the ribs by Digby. I think this might say that Digby might have been more emotionally stronger than the narrator, and maybe even that he was “more bad” than the narrator. I do believe that a return to Greasy Lake will happen, but I think that Digby will have to prompt the narrator, who will be more unwilling to go because of the events that happened there.

  4. Allison, you did a great job on your post by evaluating the story and initiating further questions. The beginning of your second paragraph caught my attention as it reads; “as the story goes on and the night goes on …” this made me realize that their night actually resembled a story. Each decision led to another event that would in turn affect the next step. Many of us can relate that to our own lives as we make numerous decisions daily that affect what we will do next. One wrong decision seems to have a domino effect, which is illustrated in this story of Greasy Lake. The questions you asked near the end of your post were well placed and formulated. They last one “what am I looking for?” is one that most of us can apply to our own life. What are we really all looking for in life? Is it something attainable? Will the end result justify the work I am putting in now? That one question opens the door to many more and allows the reader to evaluate their own life, in relation to the characters in the book.

  5. Allyson, I really liked how you responded to the story and showed how the author wanted the reader to feel like he or she can connect with the story. It is true that we have all been in situations where we have made mistakes and aren’t sure what we should do about them. I think if I were in the shoes of the narrator, I would not be returning to Greasy Lake anytime soon. I think that going there would be hard and bring back too many unwanted and disturbing memories. However, I think that with time the boys will be able to return to the lake with a clearer mind set.

  6. Allyson, great job bringing out the main points behind the story “Greasy Lake”. I can see the vision of the movie “Grease” when I think about the story now, and it fits the theme. I believe the narrator will stay away from greasy lake from now on. He really got this bad feeling from all the events that took place that night, and it seems as though he wouldn’t want to relive them. The other two characters, Digby and Jeff, were probably scared as well but I think maybe they would be the ones to go back without the narrator. The narrator was put through some more trauma during the night when he came across the dead body. The only time I could see the narrator going back is when he is older and has his life together, and it would only be to look back at a time that made his life change for the better. Or maybe he would relive the moment every time he needs some motivation to keeping moving towards the right direction. Overall, “Greasy Lake” definitely got me thinking about how times in my life had an impact on me and got me thinking straight.

  7. Allyson, you’ve already gone back, as have all of us who reread the story. We all relive it like a nightmare. Its pull calls us back to discover what has caused its characters’ aberrant behavior. Once back in “Greasy Lake” the story, the question becomes not what if…, but rather what then…, exactly what you address.

  8. I would like to think that the characters in the story would not return to Greasy Lake, although I am pretty sure that after some time they will find themselves venturing back. Adolescences is a time of finding and determining who you are as a person, usually this occurs by trial and error. I have some hope that the characters in the story will conclude, by this experience, someone who they do not want to be, “bad boys” or “bad characters”. This is a very pivotal portion of anyone’s life. The choices you make then, good or bad, can affect you for the rest of your life. This is apparent throughout the story, the boys were given a situation and their choices would result in a lasting impression within.

  9. Allyson you did an excellent job capturing the essence of the story. Answering your last question I think the characters will more than likely return to Greasy Lake. While I am sure they were scared that night, they also felt an adrenaline like they never experienced before and I believe that a part of them liked that adrenline. Just like every time we do something that we regret the next morning, we quickly forget the way we felt and tend to make the same mistakes more than once. The night at Greasy Lake is something that they will never forget and they may just return to see what else may lurk there.

  10. As a few people mentioned in their postings, the three boys are very likely to return to Greasy Lake one day. I also believe that the narrator was more deeply affected by the experience than Digby and Jeff. In our class discussion at the high school, many people thought that the boys would naturally forget their fear and go back looking for more adventure. While I agree that their fear will wear off and they will be able to joke about the whole experience to look cool to their other friends, I don’t think that they will go searching for a night like that again. I think that Jeff, Digby, and the narrator will most likely look for fun in safer places.
    The narrator, having been separated from his friends during the night’s events, got more of a shock when discovering the dead body and hiding from the “real bad boys.” He was more vulnerable and impressionable in those moments, because Jeff and Digby weren’t there to have his back or calm him with their presence. Even though they were also afraid, the narrator was the one to lose the keys (his lifeline), hide alone, and bump into a dead man (who may have died at the hands of some nasty characters). I don’t think the narrator would have come to the same realizations if he had not been alone.
    As Allyson said, “there is a turning-point on the road to maturity in all of us.” Hopefully, this was the turning-point for the boys. With all those bad experiences to reflect back on, such as attempted rape, their shame and regret will keep them on the right path. Maybe the next time they visit the lake they won’t be so reckless.

  11. “Greasy Lake” is a great example of how one event leads to another and how making one decision causes you to make so many other ones and the consequences of those decisions, good and bad. But at the same time, fate plays a role. Was it fate that made him drop the keys? Was it fate that those headlights came right when they were about to take on the bad character’s girlfriend? Was it fate that the narrator swam into the dead body of the biker who probably was living a similar lifestyle to the one he was trying to emulate? And was it fate that they did not get caught? All of these questions are clearly debatable and no side is truly right or wrong. I’m sure when the characters were driving home some of these questions were running through their heads just as they were running through ours at the ending of the story.

    Allyson definitely hit all the key aspects of this short story. My response to the question of if they will return to Greasy Lake is that they eventually will. They might avoid it for a while when all the events are still vivid in their memory. Digby and Jeff will probably return before the narrator, but he will also come around and join them after feeling the peer pressure begin to sink in again. Ultimately, it will always be in the back of his mind, but he won’t ever share what he stumbled upon out in Greasy Lake.

  12. I honestly enjoyed the story “Greasy Lake” and I found it incredibly suiting to read to our students at Fall River. Also, Allyson’s response was immensely insightful, especially her concluding thoughts. I felt as though I was one of the characters in “Greasy Lake” and I was constantly relating to situations in my own life as I read on. As most of the respondents said, I also think the boys will return to the lake after their hellish experience there. The narrator even states “Then I thought of the dead man. He was probably the only person on the planet worse off than I was”. I found that this statement made the boys’ experience at Greasy Lake so much more real because for a while, it felt almost dreamlike. Since the boys didn’t get caught or receive any punishment whatsoever, even after all they did, it was not enough to keep them away.

  13. Allyson’s posting is a concise summary of the events depicted within “Greasy Lake.” The questions and comments brought forth by Allyson are important, in that they prompt further thought into the intricacies and nuances hidden within the story. First, is the statement that the three boys the story centers itself are highly identifiable with most readers. This is a valid point, in that every adolescent must at some point face difficult choices that inevitably shape their futures. Should these young men become the characters they are attempting to portray or should they abstain from the temptation to “be bad?” Furthermore, the idea that the story allows the reader to project themselves onto the narrator is spot on. The narrator remains nameless. His features and characteristics are vague and resemble that of many adolescents. This inevitably allows the reader to interpret the situations portrayed as more their own and brings the story to life. Finally, we come to the whether the boys will return to the lake. I am of the opinion that the boys will remain absent from the shores of Greasy Lake for some time. This is especially true for the narrator. Having been the only of the three to have encountered the corpse, to have dealt a near fatal blow, and having had his mothers care demolished, he has most likely had an experience he will never be able to erase from his mind. Thus for him, the allure of Greasy Lake has most likely been lost.

  14. Nice job Allyson! I think the question of the boys returning to Greasy Lake depends on whether they truly are “bad” or not. If these boys are inherently bad, sure they will go back. If their “badness” was only a cool factor, they will probably be too scared to go back; for a while anyways.

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