Tampa’s a novel about a 26-year-old pedophile named Celeste Price who decides to teach middle school so she can have access to 14-year-old boys. Celeste is gorgeous, bodacious, sexually ravenous, smart, manipulative and totally guiltless about her abusive proclivities. The night before her first job starts — the night before she meets the quarry of boys in her classes that she’ll mine for that one perfect specimen of dewy youthfulness she can exploit to her nasty heart’s content — she has an elaborate fantasy about a school dance she chaperones in which she dances with a boy, presses herself against his erection and whispers in his ear: I want to smell you come in your pants.
The next day she starts teaching, and for the next few weeks scopes out the male talent until she finds Jack Patrick, a lean shy boy who’s just emerging into adolescence — someone who satisfies her special needs. (“Sex struck me,” Celeste muses, “as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened.” I can hardly believe it, but this is an actual line from the book.) Just as important, Jack is someone who will never, ever tell. So Celeste turns on the charm, keeping Jack after class to talk about Romeo and Juliet, and eventually gets around to asking him, “Do you ever feel like if you didn’t get relief you could physically die?” Poor kid leaves, befuddled, as you might imagine. Celeste then starts parking her car outside his house at night until she catches him at his window, “staring … straight at the moon, wildly jerking off to a distant celestial body” (He’s a romantic, I guess.) This makes Celeste so hot that “I shoved my fist into my underwear and began grinding my clit against my knuckles.” (A romantic she’s not.) She continues: “watching him was so taunting that I felt like I was being injured; the longer I looked, the deeper the hot wound inside of me grew.” Knuckle-love being insufficient, she goes home, waits for her husband to come home (yup, she’s married, to a cop named Ford who’s a clueless idiot she despises), “fell to my knees in the dark, squat[ted] down like a dog in the hallway with my ass facing the door” until he opens the door, whereupon — Hey, honey, I’m home! — he mounts her and leaves her with “his semen dripping down my thighs like blood from an injury.”
Hooked yet? If you’re not, then you’re out of luck, because this is, I’m afraid, the least terrible part of the book: The rest is, ladies and gentlemen, one fleet roll downhill. In ensuing chapters, Celeste seduces Jack Patrick — after all her fantasizing, their coupling in a car is oddly anticlimactic — and begins a months-long sexual odyssey that gets, as you might expect, sordider and sordider, not to mention more and more predictable. Celeste decides that her trysts with Jack Patrick should happen at his house while his father is working, which, if nothing else, gives the reader a game to play: How many pages will it take before the father catches them? Another fun question: What will the father do when he catches them? Do you want me to tell you? Why not, since you’re not gonna read this book, are you? He has a heart attack and dies — a nice, slow death, too, which Celeste watches and doesn’t even call 911 about because if the dad dies, then she won’t get in trouble and she can keep screwing the 14-year-old son!
Of course, after the dad dies, Jack Patrick has to move out of the house and in with his mom, which gives the ever-resourceful Celeste the idea not only to continue to use the house for further trysts with Jack, but to start up with a new boy in the very same house, and guess what happens when Jack shows up one day while she’s screwing the new boy?
The author’s Alissa Nutting, who made a name for herself around these parts as a fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute and as a lively presence on the Vegas lit scene before heading off to teach at John Carroll University. (She also wrote a few pieces for CityLife.) So I wish I had better things to say. The whole thing feels like a massive contrivance, all high concept with only the thinnest of follow-throughs. Sure, the idea of a female teacher seducing young boys has thematic potential, but if you decide, as Nutting has, to give us a psychologically impenetrable Celeste who simply gets meaner and more monstrous as the novel proceeds, and if you decide, as Nutting has, to present the world of your book as peopled with nothing but absurd and cliched grotesques (except for the nubile boys), then I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be reading for. The sex scenes? In the publicity material, Nutting has likened her book to a “contemporary version of Lolita,” with the gender roles reversed. Is she kidding? Has she even read the Nabokov? Nutting can write decent sentences, but she’s got a conventional novelistic mind with no talent for true transgression. Tampa is certainly a high-fly act, but she’s flying over territory she has no real feel for: It’s no wonder that in the end she gets lost.
TAMPA, Alissa Nutting, Ecco Press, 266 pages