(Ecco, July 2013)
A friend and I were debating if Celeste Price, the narrator of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, is human enough to carry the story. His contention is that she’s too much of a monster, that she never felt real, and that the book is a paint-by-number-ish affair in which a 26-year-old blond middle school teacher seduces—preys upon—her 14-year-old student. The reason this friend and I were even having such a discussion was that I’d informed him that Tampa was the book of the summer, and he was attempting to call me out on my claim.
Celeste, certainly, is a troubling character, and Tampa’s a deeply troubling book. It’s among the most sexualized reads I’ve ever experienced: Nutting’s brazenness with physicality is shocking, and I had a weird sort of difficulty reading the book in public simply because every page or two there’d be a sentence which made me gasp, such as: "With that, I licked my lips, then slid them down over him, slowly arching my neck and extending my throat until my mouth came to the base." The language isn’t much functionally different from porn, and one of the reasons the book’s so bracing is that the sexualized stuff is terrible: the reader (at least this male, hetero-reader) is implicated by the sentences full of nude flesh and fucking between an adult woman and a little child, a boy far too young for such physicality.
One can’t read much about Tampa without seeing mention of it being a reverse-Lolita, but Tampa is far more than merely a book with a creepily propulsive idea behind it. Celeste is, yes, terrible: she writes the names of her students on the desks in her classroom with vaginal juice, and she’s using her husband Ford (police office, square-jawed), it’s doubtful she’s a good teacher (plenty happens in the classroom, but by and large Celeste steers conversations toward darker aspects of sexual desire in an attempt to appease or satisfy her endless craving), and the lengths she’s willing to go to protect her arrangements (I’d say protect her relationships, but it’s not the relationships she’s protecting: it’s the availability of young men to have sex with) will chill you. She is monstrous, indisputably.
However: she’s deeply, grossly compelling exactly because of her monstrousness. One’s tempted to insert something about car crashes and the spectatorial inability to look away, and there’s an aspect of that: when a character imagines a line of middle-school-aged boys lined up with their pants dropped and their penises poked between a jail’s bars, and when she imagines working the row, getting each boy to orgasm with her mouth or hands or vagina, there’s a raw horror to it that’s hard to look away from, but I’d argue it’s not merely prurience or luridity that keeps our attention.
No: the reason Celeste is such a draw is because she’s 100 percent clear about who she is. Tampa would be unreadable dreck were Celeste to be wracked with guilt and wonder about "dating" a 14-year-old boy, but she's not. Jack Patrick, her "boyfriend" for most of the book (though that term’s not fair: he believes she loves him and they’ll end up together once he finishes high school, while all she wants, forever, is a fresh stock of 14-year-olds) is a willing participant in the trysts Celeste initiates, but he ends up having to go along with the pretense that Celeste is sort of casually befriending (with benefits) his father Buck so that she’ll have an excuse to spend so much time with Jack at his house (another option—that she’s tutoring him—obviously can’t quite work if she wants to screw him each day after school). As any reader could guess, the issue of Buck "dating" Celeste comes (I’m sorry) to a head, and Celeste and Jack Patrick are compromised, but while Jack is deeply hurt, Celeste is aware of the price of such business (namely, pedophilia), and takes the payment in stride.
And I’d argue that, more than anything else, is the most sickly fascinating aspect of Tampa: it fundamentally is an economic book, an account of one woman’s (illegal, disturbing) hungers and the ways in which she’ll pay to be able to have them. And not just that—a conventionally hot woman’s hungers, which creature, at least according to Tampa and Alissa Nutting and everybody else alive if we’re being honest, lives differently, materially, than us mere mortals (of any gender). Quite a bit of what ends up being so biting about Tampa is how the reader’s implicated: Celeste gets away with what she does because she’s sexy, and most of us like to like and believe sexy people, and so are willing to suspend quite a bit of disbelief for their sakes (there’s a chance that you’re the sort of reader who has never ever let anyone’s physical beauty sway you in any way; to the six of you, maybe you can just read this and feel how the rest of us do). Nutting’s created a dark, nasty book of brutal math centered around a character who, evil though she is, forces certain aspects of shuddering awareness upon the reader. For better or worse, it’s impossible to finish Tampa feeling or thinking precisely the same as you did when you began it.