Content Warning: statutory rape, vivid descriptions of erogenous zones of male and female bodies, drugging another person, using drugs to tolerate unwanted sex, vivid descriptions of sexual acts, cruel thoughts about people whose bodies don’t fit current society’s ideals, 1st-person point of view from a sexual predator, voyeurism.
Alissa Nutting’s first book, a collection of short stories called Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, was a fantastic reading experience. The stories were clever, bold, and when I read it in 2011 I left this on Goodreads:
I laughed, I was bummed, the stories seemed to teach something I need to dig for, in a good way. This book is also an exercise in great first lines and how they can make the story, shape it into an adventure.
There’s nothing quite as exciting as a short story writer publishing her first novel, and when Tampa can out in 2013, I started obsessively reading interviews about it. You see, Unclean Jobs was published by a small press, Starcherone. It’s small enough that I’ve met the guy who started the press, claiming he had to do something while he was getting divorced. I also just learned that it’s folding. Tampa, however, hit it big when published by Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins, one of the “big five” operations that control most of what we in America read. That’s a big leap!
In interviews, Nutting expressed she was interested in the way society reacts when an older man has a sexual relationship with a minor female. We’re horrified by what a pervert the man is and feel pity for the girl. Nutting flipped the narrative and examines what happens when an older woman has a sexual relationship with a minor male. Imagine his friends high five-ing him, and how lucky he must feel. Tampa is based on a true story about a beautiful woman with whom Nutting went to school who later had a relationship with a student.
Tampa is about Celeste Price, a 26-year-old blond bombshell who is married to a handsome police officer. People are jealous of their hotness and his trust fund. But the secret is that Celeste became a teacher so she could get closer to boys . . . specifically fourteen-year-old boys who have not dipped into puberty yet. Once they do, Celeste feels disgusted by males. Due to space shortage, her classroom is a convertible/mobile modular (remember those?) that keeps her at a distance from other faculty and staff. Celeste soon finds the perfect boy, Jack, and lures him in with some perverse observations (she claims she saw him standing in his window, staring at the stars, masturbating — it’s true, but she used binoculars. so this was no accident) that she suggests made her feel sexy. The relationship gets darker and more difficult as Jack grows from fourteen to fifteen, and finally sixteen at the end of the book.
The similarities to Lolita are immediate and obvious: the way both Celeste and Humbert Humbert glorify tweens like demigods, a death that saves the abuser from getting caught, the abused aging and becoming more aware. The biggest difference is Humbert Humbert is a master of euphemisms, while Celeste says exactly the thing that’s happening, so the language is this books is explicit. Really, really not for the gentle reader! Nutting using such precise language prevents the reader from being lulled into the “romance” of abuser/abused. There were times when I could see Humbert Humbert’s point of view, but felt immediately ashamed at my complicity. I never felt like Celeste’s victim was anything but.
But Alissa Nutting does manage to confuse the reader about whether or not Celeste is a victim, too. After she’s arrested, police officers are sure to swing by to conspicuously stare at her body. Jack’s dad makes sexual innuendos, suggesting he wants a woman who can control her weight, but not her appetite in the bedroom. As a female reader, I knew the behavior of male characters was realistic.
But why should you read Tampa? It’s true, the word choices are horrifying (many people in my book club didn’t finish the novel). Since I was in the mind of a child rapist, I wanted to know how she operated. Celeste is self-aware. About her husband, she claims:
I find it hilarious that people think [my husband] and I are the perfect couple based solely on our looks.
When Celeste admits to fourteen-year-old Jack she’s attracted to him, her thoughts reveal how knowledgeable she is about ways to manipulate someone:
I’d said enough about me; it was time to shift the blame of desire back onto him.
Celeste even knows how important to Jack’s life it will be that she took his virginity when he was fourteen:
I’d be the sexual yardstick for his whole life: Jack would spend the rest of his days trying but failing to relive the experience of being given everything at a time when he knew nothing. Like a tollbooth in his memory, every partner he’d have afterward would have to pass through the gate of my comparison, and it would be a losing equation.
And finally, although Celeste doesn’t admit she has a problem (fourteen-year-old boys are more like Christmas day), she knows her body controls her actions, and that’s not good. She admits:
At times, I wished that my genitals were prosthetic, something I could slip out of.
Tampa will give any book club lots to talk about (assuming people can get past the first chapter), but I also thinks it helps to have read Lolita as a comparison, or the work of Cris Mazza, who has written many books about inappropriate relationships between older men and under-aged girls, such as Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls. If any kind of crude language bothers you, avoid this novel. I’ve avoided putting any in this review.