Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a brave exploration of an uncomfortable subject, and the author’s brazen treatment will cause even the most inured reader to stop and think. Celeste Price is an eighth grade English teacher with a sexual preference for fourteen year old boys. Similar to Lolita in theme, it is starkly different in its approach. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Celeste pulls no punches in her description. She is unapologetically sexual. The language is forthright and highly charged. As I posted on Goodreads: “Holy hell, Tampa. Powerful, intense, and I’m only 7 pages in.” And Nutting never lets up.
Female pedophiles aren’t as often discussed in popular culture as their male counterparts. Films like The Graduate for example even romanticize the adult female/teenage male sexual relationship. Nutting takes this trope head on by making her protagonist be only in her 20s — she’s young, beautiful, certainly an object of fantasy herself for many of her students. She is also hyper aware of her age, and understands that seducing these young boys may no longer be as easy when she starts getting wrinkles. Yet she is also, unmistakably, a sexual predator, unapologetic and despite the boys’ own fantasies, abusive of her power.
Nutting uses lurid sexual detail with purpose. At times, the scene reads almost like erotica, until you remember that the object of Celeste’s fantasies is a fourteen year old boy. The story is especially horrifying because of Celeste’s job as a teacher, a profession she chose precisely because it puts her in close proximity to the boys she wants. She sets her sights on one of her students in particular, selecting him because he is just shy enough to keep her secret, but bold enough to risk pursuing a sexual relationship with her. Her schemes to seduce the boy are horrific, particularly because her openness as a narrator implicates the reader in her plot. As an adult, we see how she is manipulating the boy and we want to rescue him, yet as readers, all we can do is watch.
Here, the sensual prose also implicates the reader by forcing us into Celeste’s psyche, without even the buffer of Humbert Humbert’s coyly seductive language. Either you are hyperaware the entire time about the boy being only fourteen, in which case the very act of reading feels disgusting, or worse, you forget for a time, and find yourself drawn into the eroticism of the scene, only to recoil with even more disgust when a detail (smooth skin, hairless legs) reminds you of what exactly is happening in the scene. Nutting employs a more brazen form of seductiveness than Nabokov in her prose, and in doing so creates a different type of discomfort. The book design itself plays into this approach; the jacket of the hardcover edition is made of velour, providing a velvety soft surface that invites stroking and that provides the reader with a highly tactile experience.
Celeste is too unapologetic about her proclivities to be an anti-hero, or anyone the reader can ever really cheer for. However, she is certainly a compelling, memorable character. Her utter lack of remorse, and total disregard for the need to sugarcoat her desires for the reader make her in some ways even more reprehensible than Humbert Humbert. Still, when she describes her disgust for the adult male form, you understand why sex with an adult male isn’t an option at all for her. Her horror at the thought of sex with her husband, or with any adult male, is palpable. You do not cheer her on, yet when things come crashing down, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Nutting manages it well.
Tampa is not an easy book to read, but it is powerful. Nutting uses shock value to a purpose, and creates a memorable protagonist in Celeste. The ending somewhat falters because it feels rushed, and the final page in particular feels unresolved. Still, overall a compelling book that demands attention.