Title:Boyle’s ‘Greasy Lake’ and the Moral Failure of Postmodernism
Publication Details: Studies in Short Fiction 31.2 (Spring 1994): p247-255.
Source:Short Story Criticism.Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic.Vol. 127. Detroit: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type:Critical essay
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning
In the essay below, Walker offers an overview of “Greasy Lake” and characterizes Boyle’s fiction as “inventive” but lacking an ethical dimension.]
In her essay, “Notes Toward a Dreampolitik,” Joan Didion describes the funeral of a motorcycle outlaw portrayed in The Wild Angels, the 1966 “classic exploitation bike movie” starring Peter Fonda. After the gang has raped and murdered while destroying a small town, “they stand at the grave, and, uncertain how to mark the moment, Peter Fonda shrugs. ‘Nothing to say,’ he says” (99). Didion finds in this remark the existential myth of the outlaw embracing man’s fate, a myth that suits both the motorcycle gang and the film’s teenage audience. The adult audience, including Didion herself, sees in this remark the moral emptiness of these fallen angels; for them, there is nothing to be learned from human experience; there is nothing to say. The film bothers to say this: art, even schlock, has the habit of revealing something about the essence of human life, bad or good.
When we look around at contemporary fiction, though, we notice that this habit of revelation is missing. Because T. Coraghessan Boyle’s story “Greasy Lake” has recently been presented in X. J. Kennedy’s fifth edition of his literature anthology, Literature (along with stories by John Updike, James Joyce, and Katherine Anne Porter), comparisons are bound to occur. Although this is not the place for a survey of Boyle’s work, a brief overview of “Greasy Lake” may serve as an introduction to his short fiction and to a major theme in it: the failure of moral nerve that has become a commonplace in contemporary fiction.
If postmodern means anything (and there is increasing evidence that, like political, it doesn’t), it refers not only to the oft-noted element of self-consciousness or “intertextuality,” but more importantly to a Fonda-like shrug and the admission, “nothing to say.” We are all accustomed to the ubiquitous breaking of the proscenium that is the hallmark of “clever” mass-produced art. From Robbe-Grillet to Roseanne, the wink into the mirror has become habitual, almost a nervous tic. But while the conservative art forms that practice this “hey, ma, no hands” approach to post-modernity hold fast to some sort of “family values,” the avant-garde of postmodern fiction, because it is in the grip of a self-image that transcends anything so banal as beliefs, is necessarily limited to parody. It attempts satire, but because it lacks any moral standards, its exaggeration and self-absorption can only serve as frenetic substitutes for a moral point of view.
Before postmodernism and its resulting habits put a stranglehold on fiction, one of the most common practices of the twentieth-century short story was presenting the sudden insight of a character under pressure. Any number of stories that make up the core of a traditional course in short fiction–and that make up most anthologies–could serve as examples: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “A & P,” “Araby,” “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” At the moment of emotional climax, the usually unwilling protagonist encounters a sudden Joycean epiphany, a new awareness of the reality of human existence. The titles I cited, of course, are good examples of this practice; like any facet of fiction, revelation can be handled well or ill and we are all familiar with stories that have banal or stupid morals tacked on willy-nilly.
Contemporary fiction has, to a great degree, avoided this last problem by avoiding revelation altogether. In these worlds of fiction, there is nothing to be learned, nothing to be revealed; there is only the endless circuit of plot and character, the zanier, the more discordant, the more violent the better. Boyle’s fiction, though, goes further to parody the revelatory nature of fiction itself. Characters in Boyle’s first two collections, Descent of Man and Greasy Lake & Other Stories, are frequently put in a position to understand the world around them and then to act according to this new understanding; but each time they ignore the knowledge, fumble the opportunity, or avoid the entire situation. This is not noticeable in Boyle’s first collection, Descent of Man, because the stories tend toward farce, or the medieval genre fabliau. They are divorced from revelation not only by their lack of morality but also by their lack of realism. They read as if one of Boyle’s major influences were Woody Allen’s early essays. The work of his second collection, though, and the third, If the River Was Whiskey, strikes an uneasy balance; it is as though Boyle desperately wants to become a writer of realistic fiction with all it entails, but can’t bring himself to do it.
“Greasy Lake” is an excellent example of a story that includes many conventions of the revelatory tale but draws back at every opportunity of displaying any true revelation in the characters in such a way that the story parodies the belief in revelation itself. The story is told by an older narrator describing himself as a pampered adolescent who considers himself and his friends “bad” characters who “cultivated decadence like a taste.” Throughout the story, the naïveté of the adolescent and his two friends Digby and Jeff is mocked by the ironic, amused, and detached tone of the narrator. Insofar as narrative technique is concerned, the story is strictly modernist, and models could be found almost anywhere: Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man come to mind instantly. When the three friends go searching for the heart of darkness at Greasy Lake, the small-town mecca of adolescents in search of thrills, they find themselves in more trouble than they had anticipated. Arriving at the lake, they mistake a parked car for a friend’s, and begin annoying its occupants. Unfortunately for the three, they disturb a truly bad character engaged with his girlfriend. The character (“Bobby”) emerges from the car and takes on all three. The bad companions are getting the worst of the battle when the narrator hits Bobby on the head with a tire iron.
The three friends, adrenalin pumping, are suddenly accosted by Bobby’s “fox,” who emerges screaming from the car. The bad characters attempt to rape her, but are interrupted by another car swinging into the parking lot (the occupants of which are later seen to be two blond fraternity brothers). The three companions–convinced as they are that Bobby is dead–run into the woods before determining who the new visitors are, and the college students decide to avenge the woman’s honor. While hiding in the shallows of the lake, the protagonist encounters a “nasty little epiphany”–the floating corpse of a dead biker, whose motorcycle is parked in the lot.
After their car is destroyed by the recovered Bobby and the two fraternity men, the three emerge from the woods at daybreak. Two women who drive up in a Mustang ask them if they’ve seen “Al,” whose motorcycle is parked nearby. The women, apparently stoned, offer drugs to the three friends, who refuse. They drive off, the narrator noting that “The girl was still standing there, watching us, her shoulders slumped, hand outstretched” (11).
We could easily confuse “Greasy Lake” with a story of revelation. All the traditional requirements for that subgenre have been met. Taken from almost any angle, the story presents many possibilities of knowledge and understanding that the 19-year-old protagonist could have gained as a result of his experience. The setting establishes this for us: the passage of the protagonist from water to land, and from night to morning, parallels his passage from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order, from naïveté to understanding. The action establishes the same concept: the protagonist compares for himself the depth of his own miseries to those of the dead biker: “Then I thought of the dead man. He was probably the only person on the planet worse off than I was. … My car was wrecked; he was dead” (9). The narrative style itself–the older narrator looking back on his youthful ignorance and bravado with an ironic detachment–leads us to expect the awareness of truth dawning upon the adolescent. This story could be special-ordered for an introduction-to-fiction anthology. Kennedy himself, in the “Questions” at the end of the story, asks “How does the heroes’ encounter with the two girls at the end of the story differ from their earlier encounter with the girl from the blue Chevy? How do you account for the difference?” (106), a question urging the student to find a revelation in the story.
But if we look at “Greasy Lake” as a story of revelation, we miss Boyle’s parody of that subgenre and misunderstand what postmodern fiction does and does not offer us. Boyle knows his business, and these well-worn elements of revelation are not in the story accidentally. If we compare his story with John Updike’s “A & P,” we will see where and to what effect Boyle’s story shrugs and admits of nothing to say. In “A & P,” one of the most widely anthologized and commonly taught of the revelation-style stories, John Updike hands us the character’s revelation on a plate. When his narrator, Sammy, a clerk in an A & P store, rebels against oppression (his boss’s insensitive criticism of three girls in bathing suits), he realizes that such defiance will neither protect the oppressed nor win him reward from those he defends, but also realizes that his action reflects his deepest character: “… my stomach kind of fell and I felt how hard the world was going to be on me hereafter” (196).
What is the difference between these two stories? By means of both style and silence, Boyle denies the possibility of his character’s learning anything from the experience.
Boyle’s style is breathless, fast-paced, and outrageous in its use of description and comparisons. Metaphors and similes come thick and fast on the shores of Greasy Lake, and Boyle never contents himself with one when he can offer two or three. The comparisons, for their abundance, are neither aimless nor without purpose; they enable us to see the referent from strategic points of view. When the three adolescents rush into the lake after being interrupted in their attempted rape, the narrator says, “Behind me, the girl’s screams rose in intensity, disconsolate, incriminating, the screams of the Sabine women, the Christian martyrs, Anne Frank dragged from the garret” (6). The metaphors here are well-chosen, presenting the reader with the various aspects of the situation: pagan rape, spiritual defiance, and political/religious oppression. They also keep a logical and emotional rhythm, increasing in intensity and culminating with one of the most emotion-laden icons of the twentieth century. When the narrator touches the floating corpse of Al the biker, he notes that “it gave like a rubber duck, it gave like flesh” (7). Once again, the pattern of similes works well and logically: the reference to a bath toy carries us from a child’s response to a sickening awareness.
I present this to demonstrate, however briefly, Boyle’s skill in establishing mood and purpose by means of figurative language. A comparison Boyle makes between the protagonist’s losing his car keys and the Vietnam war establishes such a great similarity between the protagonist and the narrator that we cannot see any change in the two between the time of the episode at Greasy Lake and the time of telling the story. Ironic or not, the same penchant for exaggeration in the 19-year-old remains in the narrator. When the companions see the car they mistakenly believe belongs to a friend, they rush out of their own in order to harass him. But the narrator’s youthful self makes a grave mistake:
In the excitement, leaping from the car with the gin in one hand and a roach clip in the other, I spilled [the car keys] in the grass–in the dark, rank mysterious nighttime grass of Greasy Lake. … I stopped there by the open door, peering vaguely into the night that puddled up round my feet. (3)
The metaphor of water in the images of “spilling” car keys and the night “puddling” bring to our minds the fluidity of the universe of Greasy Lake. This is an inchoate world, the world of the night, in which solidity, form, and definition are lost.
This fluidity is the basis of another, more important comparison: “This [loss of the car keys] was a tactical error, as damaging and irreversible in its way as Westmoreland’s decision to dig in at KheSanh” (3). We can take this link between the tactical errors at Greasy Lake and Vietnam either of two ways: first, we can laugh it off as an obviously overblown and almost clownish comparison between a wartime tragedy and the foolishness of a drunken 19-year-old. If we do that, though, we are assuming that Boyle is still in his fabliau phase and we ignore the logical and emotional grammar of his style. A second interpretation leads us further into the mind of Boyle’s fiction: by means of these two comparisons (the night bubbling up and the loss of the keys as KheSanh) Greasy Lake becomes a nightmarish swamp, the crucible of a forming consciousness, as it was for the United States.
As in most of Boyle’s fiction, the narrator of this story is not only as old as Boyle is himself, but has much the same background. Boyle, born in 1948, would have been 19 in 1967, the trough of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. None of his characters, though, are soldiers; those who do mention the politics of that time have always been deferred from the armed forces, usually as students. The protagonist of “Greasy Lake,” like the narrator, is separated from Vietnam and all it stood for; but because of this comparison, Greasy Lake becomes his own rice paddy, his own moral quagmire.
Through this comparison, Boyle has drawn the attention of the reader to a thorny moral problem, one that has recently achieved national attention: how do we respond to the moral decisions–personal and national–brought about by Vietnam? During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton encountered criticism over the possibly questionable means he used to avoid military service. Clinton and his team spent much of the campaign creating a version of himself as a young man in search of moral ground; his final decision was to reject the war, to separate himself from that quagmire. Unfortunately, it was a far-reaching swamp that sucked down many who wanted nothing to do with it. The attempts of this and other public figures in the ’90s to recreate their selves of 25 years ago mirror Boyle’s narration and life. Born Thomas John Boyle, he took “Coraghessan” as a middle name when he started college. This practice of reforming oneself, reinventing the past, taking Gatsby’s doomed words “Can’t change the past? Of course you can” as a way of life, is not new; but Vietnam and the issues that surrounded it have made the issue of great importance. When Bill Clinton refers to his hometown as Hope, Arkansas, when it is actually Hot Springs, or when he claims to have experimented with marijuana without inhaling, and when Hillary Rodham Clinton drops her middle name during the presidential campaign, we may see these actions as both perfectly obvious political gambits and as part of an ongoing attempt by a generation to avoid or alter its past.
At the time Boyle’s character is searching for his car keys in the grass around Greasy Lake, thousands of his peers were encountering genuinely bad characters in the swamps of Vietnam. Boyle’s narrator has consciously alerted us to this, but that moral awareness finds no answering chord in the character. Moral blindness is common in the revelation stories “Greasy Lake” parodies, but we expect that such moral and psychological blindness will be replaced by sight as a result of the action of the story. This does not happen in “Greasy Lake”; the 19-year-old does not pick up the message.
A second clue to the lack of psychological revelation in “Greasy Lake” is the ambiguity of its violence. Funny violence is a hallmark of the fabliau, and Boyle’s stories are nothing if not funny. But “Greasy Lake” is unusual and un-fabliau-like in the violent actions it presents. Rape and murder are not common to the fabliau or to farce; but Boyle’s frenetic style erases, suspends, and fragments the violence so that it is denied the force of realism. The resulting parody of realism enables the parody of revelation to proceed smoothly.
During the battle with Bobby, the protagonist takes a tire iron from beneath the car seat (he keeps it there because that’s what “bad characters” do) and hits him across the ear with it:
The effect was instantaneous, astonishing. He was a stunt man and this was Hollywood, he was a big grimacing toothy balloon and I was a man with a straight pin. He collapsed. Wet his pants. Went loose in his boots. (5)
The metaphors and the images that flood the mind of the narrator immediately after are not horrifying but funny: “[I envisioned] 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 …” (5). The comparisons nullify the violence. Bobby is not human but a toy, a Hollywood stunt, and the images of arrest and imprisonment are imported from the movies as well. In the same way, the attempted rape is another fantasy of cinema violence:
We were on her like Bergman’s deranged brothers … panting, wheezing, tearing at her clothes, grabbing for flesh. We were bad characters, and we were scared and hot and three steps over the line–anything could have happened.It didn’t. (6)
The conscious connection–all the more conscious as it depends on the prestige of a “foreign film,” Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, for its effect–erases any real suspense and we know that the cavalry, in one form or another, must enter the scene before any real damage is done. The narrator is aware that these are not bad characters, even though they have suddenly encountered one. Rather, they are unwitting soldiers in a Vietnam of their own making, out of their depth, and the narrative style–humorous to brutal–relieves both narrator and audience of any terror, suspense, or moral responsibility. The narrator’s style lets us know that in this Vietnam, nothing irreversible will happen; therefore, nothing is so significant that it requires consideration on the part of the character.
The farcical murder/rape and the comparison between car keys and Vietnam set the stage for the “nasty little epiphany” in the lake and the morning drive home. As I said above, these are apparent bows to the conventions of epiphany and revelation, and if we are not careful, we can mistake the narrator’s wordless reaction to the woman with the drugs as a sudden insight into how badness is no way to live, how drugs and wild life will only get one a watery grave in Greasy Lake. But the silence of the protagonist in the face of his experiences lets us know that these actions have not affected him deeply.
When the protagonist stumbles into the floating corpse, he reminds us, “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”; but all that is on his mind is “The keys, the keys, why did I have to go and lose the keys?” (7). The keys are his ticket to avoidance. With the keys in his possession, this episode will mean nothing; he may ignore any and all carcasses. While the protagonist is contemplating his keys, Bobby wakes up (no more murdered than his girlfriend was raped) and proceeds to wreck the 19-year-old’s Bel Air station wagon. The “bad” character hiding in the lake can only listen and wait for the morning as he considers his wounds (“I. … wondered if I’d need bridgework”) and wonders what excuse he can give his parents. Only after these practical concerns does his mind turn to contemplating the fate of Al, floating behind him, the “bad older character come to this” (9). Al’s fate does not take up much space in his mind.
When the three companions emerge from hiding at daybreak and meet at the ruined car, Digby remarks “At least they didn’t slash the tires.” The narrator agrees, noticing that although
There was no windshield, the headlights were staved in, and the body looked as if it had been sledge-hammered for a quarter a shot at the county fair … the tires were inflated to regulation pressure. The car was drivable. (10)
Once again, along with the keys and the memory of parents, the overarching and unavoidable rule of law in the form of “regulation” reminds us that there is no crime so hideous at Greasy Lake that it cannot be ignored and dismissed.
When the two women drive up in their Mustang (another fortuitous arrival, an occurrence we expect in a farce) and ask about Al, the biker we have seen floating in the lake, the protagonist does not tell them of their friend’s fate. “I didn’t know what to say. … Digby poked me in the ribs. ‘We haven’t seen anybody,’ I said” (11). This silence is telling. The protagonist is silent not out of remorse, but because he does not know what he can say. He is standing mute over the open grave. The woman offers drugs to the three, which Digby calmly refuses: “‘No thanks,’ he said, leaning over me. ‘Some other time’” (11). The contrast between Digby’s conversational response to the woman and the narrator’s silence may cause us (along with Kennedy in his “Questions”) to suspect that the protagonist, because of his encounter with Al’s body, has entered a new and sobering understanding of the rise and fall of fortune’s wheel. But no; this is only silence. Just before this interchange, Boyle teases us with another possibility of revelation: on the last page, the narrator’s compulsive figures of speech suddenly cease, and he limits himself to comparing the three friends to zombies, war veterans and “deaf-and-dumb pencil peddlers” (11). Again, the similes are telling: veterans of this private Vietnam, the shock of war has not enlightened them. They are separated not only from their experiences but from life itself and are unable to speak. As they drive off, the narrator, for this last line joined with the character, notices that the woman who offered them pills is standing, “shoulders slumped, hand outstretched,” as though she will stand there forever, but the protagonist simply returns to his origin. There is nothing to be learned at Greasy Lake; there is nothing to say.
Am I saying, then, that we must demand moral insight and revelation in short fiction? Do I want Boyle to write Updike’s stories? Not at all; we can’t tell our writers what to think. But we can be aware of the views of life they are presenting, and the direction in which much contemporary fiction is headed. We need to realize that we are suddenly living in an age of fictional parody, in much the same way that the neoclassical age believed itself to be an age of satire, but we live without the basis of a moral standard. We need to realize that when postmodernism preens itself on intertextuality, we must remind ourselves of its far more important quality of moral withdrawal.
Dan Pope claims that Boyle’s fiction shows “that post-modernist fiction is indeed capable of mastering the contemporary world in all its multifariousness. The universe [the postmodern writer reveals] feels and sounds exactly like what is going on around us” (669). That is precisely the point. The sudden flash of insight in the face of violence, terror, and death, is not merely a cliché we trot out because we have nothing else to say about fiction, but has been in the fiction because it is a reality of our lives; when we deny it in fiction we deny our reality and diminish our selves. Boyle’s work is interesting, inventive, humorous, and clever; but until he and other postmodernists address the ethical questions that their stories raise, their work will diminish us because we will come to see the world as one without an ethical dimension.
Boyle, T. Coraghessan. Greasy Lake & Other Stories. New York: Viking, 1985.
Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Simon, 1970.
Jungfrukallan [The Virgin Spring].Dir. Ingmar Bergman.With Max von Sydow and BirgittaPettersson.SvenskFilmindustri, 1960.
Kennedy, X. J. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Pope, Dan. “A Different Kind of Post-Modernism,” The Gettysburg Review 3 (1990) 658-69.
Updike, John. Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1969.
Walker, Michael. “Boyle’s ‘Greasy Lake’ and the Moral Failure of Postmodernism.”Studies in Short Fiction 31.2 (Spring 1994): 247-255. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism.Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic.Vol. 127. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center.Web. 30 June 2012.
Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420094484