[8 July 2003]
“What all the ads and all the whoreosocpes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of scotch in bars - you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever.”
The Only Girl in the Car is your quintessential coming of age tale, a second coming, so to speak, of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying or Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl . The oldest daughter in a family of six children, Kathie Dobie was raised in a very Catholic household in the small town of Hamden, Connecticut. Her family, perhaps like all big families, had its own personality. “The Family was an entity,” Dobie notes, “a being with needs and desires, an appetite all its own. Often those needs and desires were quite different from mine.”
But Kathie’s needs mattered not: the family always came first. And so there Kathie stood, front and center under an angelic floodlight, notoriously deemed “Mommy’s Helper,” the “Good Girl,” the “Martyr” who policed the space between one sibling rivalry and another. Besides her role as the complaisant one, Kathie Dobie was also a dreamer, a girl people often found with either her head in the clouds or her nose in a book, a real adventurer who craved a life, a spotlight, a uniqueness she could call her own.
When her attempt to physically flee the confines of her Connecticut town is foiled by a Hamden police officer, Kathie found another kind of getaway - real men in fast cars. Thus The Only Girl in the Car depicts Kathie’s adolescent years, times of hip hugger jeans and candy striped halter tops, sexual exploration and exploitation. In her search she not only found herself (in the backseat of cars), but also a cheap and easy reputation for being exactly that. “A halter top went straight to the point; it started its own conversations. Wearing one was as good as having a personality,” Dobie notes.
One of the book’s most powerful moments comes when Kathie realizes that Nicky, the boy she is sleeping with, does not see her as a girlfriend; in fact he is appalled by such a notion. He has a “real” girlfriend and Kathie is not it. Nicky’s real girlfriend doesn’t even let him kiss her. Such an incidence only grounds Kathie momentarily; the idea of girls not having sex to gain boys’ respect holds no attraction for her. “All in all, it had a hollow, dusty feel to it, like a glass jar on a shelf - DO NOT TOUCH. No, not for me,” Dobie writes. “The respect of a 16-year-old boy couldn’t hold a candle to his desire.”
The reader may become deeply aggravated by Kathie’s inability, or perhaps even unwillingness, to see the consequences of actions she believes are inconsequential. Only in a dark time, as Roethke wrote, does the eye begin to see. Kathie learns the hard way. Kathie’s current boy, Jimmy, promises his friends they too can all take turns having sex with Kathie. Pressured, begged, and pleaded with, Kathie finally acquiesces.
The Only Girl in the Car is not merely a story about growing up, not merely an example of coming to terms with body and mind, body and soul. It is, in so many ways, a new and younger take on an old problem - you know, the one without a name. In a very positive and non-aggressive manner, Dobie’s book reminds the reader of Friedan’s Feminist Mystique , for Dobie writes on that certain sense of loneliness that plagues so many of us, that specific emptiness that forever seems to toll. Her story is about one woman’s travels to the darker side of reality in an attempt to fill that hole up.
This story is neither crass nor tawdry; there are no passionate love scenes and no big romance. In a world that has become desensitized to sex, Dobie’s story does not seem all that unusual. But perhaps that’s the real genius of Dobie’s work she reminds her readers what happens to the individual when everything is reduced to a sexual transaction, when the causality of sex becomes us. Literally. Kathie Dobie used her sexuality, her budding breast and her swinging hips, as a pass into another world, a world outside her five siblings and her conservative parents, and ended up being used in the process.
It might be cliché, it might sound like the character of Kelly on Beverly Hills 90210, but Dobie is a real woman. And she reminds us that we do not live a soap opera, even if time to time, melodrama pervades. Dobie conveys her path of maturity with articulate, yet readable prose. Every chapter leaves the reader feeling not so alone with her own past.