Robin Fisher, the narrator heroine of Jessica Raya’s Please Proceed to the Nearest Exit is telling the story of her Freshman and Sophomore years from the perspective of adulthood. This gives her a detached irony about her past that takes what might be a fraught melodrama, to a coming-of-age story rich in humor and sarcastic wit. Robin is a brunette in a California town so full of blondes it’s named Golden. She’s a bit of a misfit and her best friend Melanie is abandoning her for more popular and far meaner girls.
She falls into friendship with Carol Closter, in part out of compassion and her own isolation and in part because Carol won’t take no for an answer. Carol is one of those people whose religious fanaticism is tinged with mania to the point you’re not sure which came first, religious mania or mental illness, but she is decidedly unbalanced, certain she has a mission, fated to become a saint for her works on earth. Robin is a go-along-to-get-along sort of person who ends up protesting an abortion clinic, not through any belief of her own, but because Carol insists.
Carol is someone I find morally repugnant. She prays for her classmates, and as Robin wisely put it, “I thought praying seemed a lot like judging.” Carol hates them, she fantasizes about them burning in hell. She is also a racist, one who uses racist epithets that even in the 70’s when this takes place were socially unacceptable. She’s intolerant, mean, and violent, even physically assaulting Robin when Robin intervenes when she harasses Robin’s ex-friend Melanie.
The most interesting person in the book is Robin’s mother, Elaine. A typical homemaker whose energy is spent redecorating the house while Dad is off selling insurance. But Dad’s commitment to fatherhood ends when Robin hits the age when teens individuate. The first time the sun does shine out of her father’s whatever, he abandons the family. Just leaves and soon Elaine had to figure out how to keep the electricity on. She finds a job, discovers the boss wants some side benefits, finds another, and eventually finds feminism and, more importantly, finds herself. Perhaps because she is changing so much, she is unaware of all that is going on with Robin.
I like Please Proceed to the Nearest Exit very much. It is a feminist novel without being one bit doctrinaire. When Elaine discovers that all is not well at school, she asks “Is this about a boy?” Robin tells her, “There’s no boy, Why does it always have to be a boy?” Good question, though some of the pressures she faces do have to do with boys, the most important issues are her friends and the loss of friends and of course, her father’s abandonment.
This is a good book, written by an author who takes it on faith that we can understand the story and Robin’s feelings without everything being spelled out for us. She trusts us and I like that a lot.