“Greasy Lake” and its Many Historical References In T. Coraghessan Boyle’s short story “Greasy Lake,” there are many subtle historical references. These references pertain to different events that were happening during the time period that the story takes place, and help to describe different parts of the plot. Casual readers may not even notice these interesting little bits of information, but upon paying closer attention; they would become aware of the small, almost unnecessary references that make this story so fascinating.
T. C. Boyle uses many military and political terms from the Vietnam War to describe events in the story.
In “Greasy Lake,” T. C. Boyle describes the mistake that worsened the situation ten fold: The first mistake, the one that opened the whole floodgate, was losing my grip on the keys. In the excitement, leaping from the car with the gin in one hand and a roach clip in the other, I spilled them in the grass – in the dark, rank, mysterious nighttime of Greasy Lake.
This was a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmoreland’s decision to dig in at Khe Sanh. (145) The battle of Khe Sanh was a well known blunder during the Vietnam War. General William C.
Westmoreland was a commander of US troops in Vietnam who made the decision to send troops into Khe Sanh. He soon realized that this was a very bad idea when he and “6,000 Marines … were surrounded by 20,000 North Vietnamese troops. ” (Brush) This parallels the story because if the narrator had not lost his keys, the boys probably would not have ended up in a fight in the first place. They probably would have escaped without injury. Another military term used in the story is kamikaze. Boyle uses this term to describe the intensity of the attack that the narrator made upon his enemy:
Digby poked the flat of his hand in the bad character’s face and I came at him like a kamikaze, mindless, raging, stung with humiliation — the whole thing from the initial boot in the chin to this murderous primal instant involving no more than sixty hyperventilating, gland-flooding seconds – I came at him and brought the tire iron down across his ear. (147) A kamikaze can be defined as “any of the Japanese pilots who in World War II made deliberate suicidal crashes into enemy targets. ” (“Kamikaze”) It is not hard to find the hidden meaning behind the statement in the story. When the arrator speaks of attacking like a kamikaze, he is referring to the fact that he is so consumed with anger, that he assaults the man with a lack of thought towards his own safety, and surprising precision. His intentions were not to protect himself but solely to injure his opponent. Boyle uses the term “zeppelin” to depict the moment when the fight had just ended and the boys were finally realizing what had just happened. “A single second, big as a zeppelin, floated by. We were standing over him in a circle,… I was still holding the tire iron, a tuft of hair clinging to the crook like dandelion fluff, like down.
Rattled, I dropped it in the dirt, already envisioning the headlines…” (147). the word “zeppelin” is used to refer to the giant gas-filled balloons that were originally designed to be the “first commercial transatlantic airships. ” (“What is a Zeppelin? ”) The most famous of these ships is the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg came to a tragic end when it was struck by lightening over New York City, which ignited the gasses inside the zeppelin, and caused a massive explosion, killing 36 people (Zeppelin). This analogy works well in the context of the story. The zeppelin represents the huge, horrible feeling of destruction and impending consequences.
Boyle also uses the term “air blitz” when he illustrates the scene of the early morning of Greasy Lake in the aftermath of the fight. “I was circling the car, as dazed and bedraggled as the sole survivor of an air blitz, when Digby and Jeff emerged from the trees behind me. ”(Gioia 150) A blitz is “any swift, vigorous attack, barrage, or defeat…. ” (“Blitz”) It is obvious why the narrator would feel like he had just endured a blitz. He had just narrowly escaped a beating that could possibly have killed him. Other terms used in the story are guerrilla and commando.
Boyle used these words when discussing the topic of crawling across the ground. “I inched forward, elbows and knees, my belly pressed to the muck, thinking of guerrillas and commandos and The Naked and the Dead” (149). T. C. Boyle also uses many references from literature, music, and movies that were popular during the time the story takes place. In the beginning of the story, the narrator explains how he and his friends are “dangerous characters” (144). He says “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” (144). Andre Gide was a “controversial French writer whose novels…often show individuals in conflict with accepted morality” (144). “Gide’s work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment…” (“Andre Gide”) It is interesting that the characters in the story read this kind of literature because it parallels their lives quite strongly. These kids seem to just want to be free, and they probably enjoy reading Gide’s books more just because they are considered controversial. Another reference Boyle used in “Greasy Lake” is the music of the Toots and the Maytals: “I drove.
Digby pounded the dashboard and shouted along with the Toots & the Maytals while Jeff hung his head out the window and streaked the side of my mother’s Bel Air with vomit. ” (145) The Toots and the Maytals are known as a “timeless, legendary, and distinctly unique musical force who has given monumental joy and epic groove-inspiration to countless individuals. ” (Gorney) It isn’t surprising that the characters in this story listen to this type of music. The Toots and the Maytals provide a laid-back, reggae inspired, unique sound, and would be hard pressed to displease any teenager.
It is not hard to imagine these guys sitting back and smoking pot while listening to this kind of music. Boyle uses a few references from movies that came out in the time that the story is set, one of which is Virgin Spring. He uses this movie to help describe the girl that the boys attempt to rape. “Sure, the gin and the cannabis and even the Kentucky Fried may have had a hand in it, but it was the sight of those flaming toes that set us off – the toad emerging from the loaf in Virgin Spring, lipstick smeared on a child; she was already tainted.
We were on her like Bergman’s deranged brothers…” (147). The Virgin Spring is a movie directed and produced by Ingmar Bergman that came out in 1960. It was about a young girl who meets three goatherders who end up raping and killing her. The story goes on to explain what happens when the goatherders, unknowingly, meet her family (“The Virgin Spring”). Another literature reference is The Naked and the Dead. Boyle mentions this book when he describes the manor in which the boys crawled across a parking lot to hide from a couple of guys. The Naked and the Dead is a novel written in 1948 by Norman Mailer.
It is a book containing many combat and scouting scenes (“Naked”). T. C. Boyle uses many brand names for different products and automobiles in Greasy Lake. When the boys spoke of being very “dangerous characters,” (144) they mentioned that they “drank gin and grape juice, Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai” (144). Tango, Thunderbird, and Bali Hai are all very cheap, very strong alcoholic beverages. It is said that “if you need to get trashed with a quickness, then “T-bird” is the drink for you” (“Thunderbird”). A few different cars that Boyle writes about are the Bel Air, a ’57 Chevy, a Trans-Am, and a Mustang.
All of these cars except for the Bel Air, (which was the narrator’s mother’s car), are muscle cars that would have been very desirable to any teenage boy in the sixties. Boyle also mentions a chopper in the story. “The owner of the chopper, no doubt, a bad older character come to this. Shot during a murky drug deal, drowned while drunkenly frolicking in the lake” (150). It is just about perfect that Boyle decides that this guy would have a chopper. It fits the character wonderfully. Choppers are well known for their bad – ass owners. Not just anyone can drive a chopper.
It takes a certain kind. Had T. C. Boyle not decided to use such interesting references and examples in his story, he may have ended up with a rather boring story about a couple of kids who get themselves into trouble. All the extra details help to make the story more memorable, and they also make it easier to get an idea of what the lives of these boys must be like outside of what is written on paper. It is impressive how much history and little bits of information Boyle was able to fit into such a short story without making it seem cluttered.
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