RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS

Confessions of a Bad Girl

Who Makes Good

By Beverly Donofrio

Morrow. 204 pp. $16.95

Everybody remembers the Girl Who Got Pregnant in High School. Sometimes she was an innocent waif but most of the time she was a pistol who hung out with other pistols.

Journalist Beverly Donofrio, who has written for Cosmopolitan and the Village Voice, now has a master's of fine arts from Columbia, but she spent her teen years breaking flags off mailboxes, getting drunk in parking lots before school dances and riding around with her tough girlfriends "pulling down our pants and shaking our fannies at passing vehicles."

The Donofrio family lived in a rented mint-green house on the edge of a public housing project in Wallingford, Conn. Her mother was resigned to her fate and her part-time job at Bradlees. Her father, a classic Italian papa, was a police detective. ("Believe me, being a bad girl and having my father cruising around in an unmarked vehicle was no picnic.") In keeping with Italian patriarchy, Papa sits at one end of the dinner table and Bev's brother, the only son, sits at the other end, with the women lined up on the sides. The TV is on constantly and "Paint by the Numbers" is the family's only cultural outlet.

A boy-crazy man-hater, Bev gets pregnant by Raymond Bouchard, whose idea of sexy is a snapshot of himself passed out on a bed with his shirt pulled up to his armpits, and a hundred beer cans and liquor bottles in the background. Since it is still the 1960s, Raymond does the gentlemanly thing and marries her. Their brief life together in a public housing unit turns into an unstructured, futureless nightmare of car wrecks, Raymond's buddies throwing up in the living room, pizza and Dairy Queens for dinner, beer for breakfast and marijuana.

Soon Raymond switches to heroin, supporting his habit by breaking into houses and stealing stereos. When Bev sends him to buy medicine for their sick baby and he spends the money on drugs, she divorces him and he enlists to go to 'Nam, where the heroin is cheap.

Bev goes on welfare and takes up hippie motherhood with her baby son, Jason. Between shoplifting trips -- Jason creates such havoc in stores that no one notices what she is doing -- she discovers Betty Friedan and women's liberation, which she interprets as just another version of her bad-girl behavior in high school. Living with a girlfriend also on welfare, they sleep with as many men as they can find, yet sisterhood of a sort gleams through as Bev contemplates their female-headed household: "I supposed it would end as soon as one of us fell in love. Maybe that's why we always made fun of each other's men, because each of us was afraid the other would get too attached."

Busted in a pot raid, Bev draws a suspended sentence and a warning from her father's fellow cops: If they see another car parked in the driveway they will bust her for prostitution.

Realizing that she has used men as a demolition derby to wreck her reputation so she will not end up a respectable drudge like her mother, she resolves to turn her life around. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation sends her to community college, where she does so well that she is accepted at Wesleyan and classified as a "woman in transition," receiving free tuition and an apartment. Her boy-craziness slowly but surely abating with each new triumph, she goes to New York after graduation and makes her rocky way as a single mother.

Despite all the cars, Donofrio's writing is pedestrian. "I got felt up in the backseat of a car, not because I wanted to exactly, but because I was only fourteen and thought that when everybody else was talking about making out, it meant they got felt up" sounds like a true-confessions magazine. Yet the book occasionally rises to a pitch of classical bleakness reminiscent of the British working-class tragedies "Poor Cow" and "A Taste of Honey," or Betty Smith's underrated second novel, "Tomorrow Will Be Better." The poignancy of lines like "When I was a kid and pictured myself being interviewed, it was by Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin, not a social worker" lifts this book out of the ordinary and establishes Beverly Donofrio as a promising voice.

The reviewer is the author of "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" and the recently published "Lump It or Leave It."