Three young men are about to undergo a rite of maturity that will take them from innocence to experience and from the last vestiges of childhood into the opening round of maturity. The unnamed narrator and his friends Jeff and Digby are what would today be referred to as poseurs although what they are really are merely young men struggling to find their identity in an increasingly confusing world. Even so, it is the misplaced identification with gritty urban heroes of books and screen by these ordinary suburban boys that situates them into a place where Greasy Lake becomes the baptismal.
Trouble begins with the trio makes a far more miscalculated misidentification: that of thinking that a car parked up at Greasy Lake belongs to their friend Tony Lovett. As boys—not to mention some more mature and experienced men who should admittedly know better—will do, they act on their initial impulse to prank Tony as he is—or so they think—in the middle of a romantic tryst. After all, what other reason exists for being at Greasy Lake at night?
As practical jokes go, this one almost barely disqualifies as a harmless prank: the entirety of their plan consists of jumping inside the station wagon driven to the lake by the narrator, flashing its lights and honking its horn. As far as pranks go, this one should hardly have the impact of being a ritual of manhood. But that’s how things go, sometimes.
The realization that they are not pranking Tony because it is not Tony’s car dawns slowly, but inexorably until it becomes clear that the practical joke was about as ill-advised as possible. The owner of the car is not unknown. He’s not Tony Lovett, but rather a person described as a “bad greasy character.” Just how bad quickly becomes apparently when this bad character quickly draws the boy into a fight that comes to an unexpected end when the narrator grabs a tire iron and bashes it upside the greasy guy’s head. His fall to the ground is highly suggestive of only one conclusion: the narrator has just killed someone.
The key moment in the story, it can be argued, occurs next. The narrator, Jeff, and Digby do not immediately flee in the face of the possibility of homicide. Instead, they turn their attention to the greasy character’s girlfriend, now alone and vulnerable and utterly at the mercy of the skyrocketing levels of adrenaline and testosterone shooting through the still not fully developed bodies of the three apparently quite average, ordinary and relatively harmless suburbanites. It is not the kind of mercy that is desirable as the three move to work out their mixture of aggression and sexuality on the girl.
The arrival of another car quickly causes a dispersal of the would-be gangbangers, however. The narrator chooses to escape by driving straight into the lake where the night just gets weirder. What should his brief underwater getaway bring him into contact with but an actual dead body which sends him scurrying away in terror? The dispersal results in the congealing of shared boyhood nightmare as the trio manage to meet up again in the woods, hidden from the suddenly gazing eye of reconstituted greasy character. Turns out he was merely knocked unconscious and not dead.
While that twisting of circumstances is most certainly a good thing, what happens next is not. The reawakened greasy character and his buddies who drove up in the other car descend upon the narrator’s mom’s station wagon as if it were the girl that the narrator, Jeff, and Digby were about to attack just a few minutes earlier. By the time they are done, they station wagon is barely recognizable. Sated from the exercise of their own pent-up aggression and sexual tension, the greasy character and the vandals leave the lot only to be very shortly replaced by yet another car.
Out of this vehicle stumble two young women who have clearly been experimenting with some illegal substance or two. When the boys appear out of the darkness of the woods, one of the girls looks at them and vocalizes the irony that has been pervasive since the story commenced: “You guys look like some pretty bad characters.” The girls then offer up some of their stash of drugs to the trio, but the narrator recoils from his offer just like he recoiled from the corpse in the water. What had once seemed so tempting in its debauchery and corruption has become much clearer to the narrator as something to run from rather than toward as he admits that he is on the verge of crying.
Barely able to manage the transmission back into the Drive position, the station wagon heads back into the safer and more predictable and comforting confines of suburbia, carrying three men who have become more experienced in the ways of the world than the three boys who had arrived at Greasy Lake not that long ago.