(The novel Tampa, and some of the related subject matter discussed in this review, is pretty NSFW.)
"A very guilty pleasure indeed. The heroine is an obsessed, masturbating, child-molesting, somewhat homicidal sexual sociopath. Think of a female Dexter but without the redeeming social value. And you'll be cheering for her every step of the way and eagerly awaiting a sequel."
In a very basic nutshell, this assessment, quoted from a Barnesandnoble.com customer review, manages to sum up the fascinating double standards that abound in Tampa, Alissa Nutting's debut novel, in addition to getting a few details drastically wrong. Nobody can read this novel and not feel guilty. It's narrated by a physically attractive young teacher with a sexual and psychological attraction to fourteen year-old boys. There are many extremely detailed sex scenes, rife with slang and clinical terminologies, and when the novel is on the cusp of one of these luridly detailed interactions, the reader is at least subconsciously eager to read what the teacher has in store for her student. But just as quickly, the reader has to blink and remind him/herself: the unfolding act is pedophilia and molestation, not an enjoyably raunchy interlude in a very good book. Tampa isn't a twisted Fifty Shades knockoff, it's an accomplished, scary novel by a very talented writer. While I had my own issues with the novel's ending, I came away with the belief that this really is one of the better novels of the summer. It reads very quickly, but is crafted with a terrific emphasis on the main character's mental problems. While it's based on research of actual crimes, it's not some tawdry, "ripped from the headlines" cash-in. And most importantly, it positively thrives on making the reader confront its many double standards and notions of the differences between male and female sexuality.
Celeste Price is blonde, taut, and married to a wealthy cop. She's beginning her first school year teaching English in a junior high school, but she's there for one reason: to pick the perfect male student to seduce and have sex with throughout the school year. Her criteria is meticulous for a variety of reasons, and she settles on a boy named Jack Patrick:
"But despite the pleasant view, I saw few real options. Goody-goodies like Frank would deny me, and the overly confident type would find it impossible not to brag. There was only Jack--my second choice, Trevor Bodin, had a vast assortment of imperfections; deciding between the two of them was like being asked to pick a dance partner and given the option of a trained choreographer or an epileptic with a wooden leg. Trevor was an artsy sort whose hair was a wiggish crop of curls. A pensive journaler, he'd already asked if I'd look at some of his poetry. Since he walked home from school and didn't have to rush to catch a bus, he often came up to talk books and writing with me after class. But he had a girlfriend; most of his poetry was devoted to professing his love for her--Abby Fischer in my second period, memorable for her chunk of dyed purple hair. Being the romantic type, if Trevor ever did stray, he'd undoubtedly confess to her minutes after the act, likely through a series of frantic text messages that peppered statements of regret with frown-faced emoticons. He also came off as clingy, which could prove to be downright toxic. Trevor seemed like the type who would be ever more demanding, who would accept nothing less than symbiosis (Nutting 53-54)."
Jack Patrick is attractive, not too socially awkward and not too gregarious, and Celeste learns that he lives with his father, who often comes home late from work. These realizations, like everything else in Celeste's life, are analyzed and mentioned solely in relation to how she can feed her addiction and desires. As she states, her marriage is a sham, and her husband's wealth fulfills every need except her sexual ones. She has no hobbies, no outside interests, and no goal except maintaining her appearances (physical and perceived) to indulge her desire for underage males. This puts a strain on her sex life at home, giving her husband only occasional moments of sexual release, with the unspoken realization that it's best (in her mind) to project to others that they have a fantastically happy marriage and sex life, even though this isn't the case. At first, I thought the easy comparison novel would be Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, with the roles reversed. However, Humbert Humbert's seduction of Dolores Haze, for all of its horrifying realizations and implications, is actually an absurd comedy and commentary on youth and desire. Celeste Price is no Humbert Humbert. She's a cold, manipulative criminal, with terrifying sociopath tendencies.
That's not to say that Tampa doesn't dive into sociological and cultural ideas. In a wonderful interview with the website Jezebel, Nutting states that her goal was to explore female sexuality. She says "I think female predators tend to be sexually objectified and obtain a sort of celebrity status. I can’t remember the specific names of a single male-teacher/female-student case that got national attention off the top of my head. It’s not sensationalized or sexualized in the same way." There's a fantastic double standard at play. The awful consensus that many people have is that sexual abuse of a boy isn't as bad as sexual abuse of a girl; in addition to being wrong, it's also a shameful, sexist mentality of our times. Nutting carefully shows that Jack is a child. His actions, from the initial seduction to the aftermath, are those of someone not in control of his sexuality or maturity.
"'That was the best sex of my life, Jack.' He smiled; his eyes bashfully dodged my own but his face held a definite glow of pride.
'Mine too,' he said, then realizing his own joke, began to giggle. Now that it was over, the lust no longer there to suppress his modesty, Jack seemed embarrassed of his body--he'd lifted his knees up to his chest.
I reached up into the front seat and turned the key, blasting a cool stream of air-conditioning back onto us, and looked at the clock. It felt like we'd been there for hours, but it had only been twenty minutes.
'Are you hungry? Do you want to go through a drive-through?' Jack nodded (Nutting 113)."
While looking online for reaction to Tampa, I stumbled upon an excerpt in, of all places, Cosmopolitan Magazine. The introduction to the excerpt (which details Celeste and Jack's first round of sex) is "This summer's baddest, buzziest novel—about a hot young teacher who seduces her student—has enough biting humor and sexually graphic detail to make our Cosmo editors blush. It's also a brilliant commentary on sex and society. Here's your sneak peek." There's no mention of Jack's age, and the snippet makes Tampa sound like a dirty, acceptable beach read. I can only imagine the outrage and backlash had this appeared in GQ or Esquire, with the book being about a grown man who seduces a fourteen year old girl. I highly doubt the editors of Cosmo had this in mind, but perhaps that's another layer to the double standard. In society, it's more or less accepted that a young man would want to have sex with his attractive teacher, therefore making the act "less scandalous" than the male teacher/female student dynamic. Elsewhere in her Jezebel interview, Nutting says:
"I do feel like there are rigid boundaries for sexually explicit female characters (and for females in society in general), and when you cross them or go beyond those prescribed confines people are quick to devalue the book. I think one of the reasons that Fifty Shades was able to be such a commercial hit with its female-driven sexual content is because it’s ultimately an extremely traditional love story. As a culture I’d say we’re most comfortable talking about female sex when it’s in the confines of romantic love.
There are very, very few sexually explicit books about female sexual predators, which is part of the reason I felt the need to write Tampa. There’s a way to write a novel about a female sexual predator that would be quite accepted—to do so the same way the issue is largely discussed in the national media: talk about the ways or reasons the woman herself is a victim (which we care about far less, if at all, when the offender is male), show her being contrite and ashamed, take the focus off the sex or belittle its harm and violence. But that all goes back to precisely the reason that it’s hard for us to see females as sexual predators with male victims in the first place in our society."
I've barely scratched the surface of Tampa's other elements. Celeste's marriage reaches a breaking point long before the cracks in her "relationship" with Jack surface; a tired, demoralized teacher at her school becomes an unexpected ally; and unexpected people, from Jack's father to another lover, appear to dangerously send Celeste's private world into chaos. For as much as she plans, she cannot account for these detours. Jack becomes more mature and demanding, and the reader can see how the sexual relationship is wearing on him. Again, Nutting pays very careful attention to even the smallest details. Nothing is gratuitous, and Nutting manages to illuminate even the smallest ideas and consequences.
"I tried having him wear his old Halloween costumes and sports equipment while I pleasured him--a favorite of mine was the now-too-small cup that had been part of his junior soccer uniform. It barely held him; his genitals spilled out from its edges, like a snake-in-the-can practical joke that had been halfheartedly pushed back inside after popping open.
But nothing seemed to nudge Jack back into the mode of abandon I was searching for. The problem, I soon realized, wasn't simply between us. The way Jack would flinch at the slightest noise when we were alone, the moments during sex when I'd open my eyes to find that Jack's gaze wasn't trained on me at all but on his closed bedroom door, make it clear he couldn't let the catastrophe of Buck finding us together go: it had left Jack with a post-traumatic stress disorder that was heartily interfering with my getting off (Nutting 176)."
I had some issues with some of Nutting's craft choices: Celeste is an English teacher, leading to some stretched metaphors between her situation and the novels being discussed in the classroom. Some of the events (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers) seem too dramatic, especially given how detailed Celeste is in her manipulations. The novel, for the most part, is chilling in its depiction of Celeste as a sociopath. Toward the end, the revelations and domino-effect actions veer the novel into summertime melodrama. As for the commentator I cited at the beginning of this piece, the reader should not be rooting for Celeste. She's not committing these acts for any greater good; she's a pedophile. And as she starts a new chapter of her life at the novel's end, there's no hope for a sequel. She's still very damaged and in need of psychiatric help. How anyone could view her as a cheer-worthy hero is beyond me.
But again, these are the questions raised by the novel, and it forces everyone to have, at the minimum, an internal conversation about how male and female sexuality and perversions are viewed. While these potential conversations can be hazy or downright uncomfortable, Nutting should be commended for putting them out there in the first place. She's a wonderful writer and, most importantly within the context of Tampa, fiercely honest about what goes on in certain places. Some will laugh, some experience dirty thrills, but overall, these discussions are needed. We still live in a heavily patriarchal society that is able to turn an eye to male sexual abuse. In a way, fiction can sometimes be the only way to trigger these discussions. Nutting isn't out to shock, but to say "This happens. How do we feel about this? And how can we change these expectations and gut reactions?"
Nutting, Alissa. Tampa. Copyright 2013 by Alissa Nutting.