>>Finally got around to it: March 2014
A sluggish couple walking a basset hound turned the corner to come down the road and circle back. They moved at a pace their bodies would have been unable to discern from rest. I felt like a child when I saw middle-aged partners and remembered they had sex together—there was still that initial sense of horror and denial. What aspect of either one of them could be pleasant to touch or to see, even in the darkest room? Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened. Even by sixteen, seventeen, it seemed that people became too comfortable with their desires to have any objectivity over their vulgar moments. They closed their eyes to avoid awkward orgasm faces, slipped lingerie made for models and mannequins onto wholly imperfect bodies. Who was that queen who tried to keep her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins? She should’ve had sex with them instead, or at least had sex with them before killing them. Many might label this a contradiction, but I felt it to be a simple irony: in my view, having sex with teenagers was the only way to keep the act wholesome. They’re observant; they catalog every detail to obsess upon. They’re obsessive by nature. Should there be any other way to experience sex? I remember taking my shirt off for a friend’s younger brother in college. The way his eyes lit up like he was seeing snow for the first time.
Tampa is the second book I’ve read this year starring a honest-to-goodness sociopath (the first being M. E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath). Sure, it’d be easy to simply label Alissa Nutting’s protagonist, eighth grade teacher Celeste Price, as a paedophile and be done with it. However, doing so would be ignoring a degree of selfishness—of personal need no matter the cost and damage to others—that goes beyond her abhorrent sexual predilections and crosses effortlessly into villainy.
As mentioned, Tampa is a first-person account of forbidden, illegal sexual conquest. Celeste Price, a twenty-six-year-old former sorority girl, isn’t interested in her thirty-one-year-old police officer husband Ford, nor for that matter anyone old enough to vote, buy booze, or drive a car. No, Celeste’s tastes are for virgin boys barely old enough to get it up in the first place—boys for whom she can be a “sexual yardstick” for the rest of their days, a love-stripped fuck they’ll spend the remainder of their lives chasing like a junkie reminiscing about their first hit of heroin.
As the story commences, Celeste is about to embark on her first year teaching eighth grade English at Jefferson Junior High in Tampa, Florida. The novel wastes no time outlining the teacher’s unique physical preferences, on the very first page citing her husband’s age as “roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.” More to the point:
Extreme growth spurts or pronounced muscles were immediate grounds for disqualification. They also needed to have decent skin, be somewhat thin, and have either the shame or the preternatural discipline required to keep a secret.
On the very first day of class, a young fourteen-year-old boy named Jack Patrick catches her eye. From the moment she sets her sights on him it’s like a predator stalking its prey—nothing will divert her from her “mission” to bed this boy. From here, the story follows a somewhat but not terribly predictable path: love’s first blush, passionate interest, dangerous obsession, and the messy aftermath.
Actually, scratch the word “love” from that. For Celeste, love has absolutely nothing to do with her predilections. In fact, love is not in any way a guiding force for her behaviour. Moreover, the very idea of it seems to repulse her, as if it is a literal noose around the neck of her raging libido. She is a woman in full embrace of her sexual desires, and never once does she fall into anything greater than lust—pure, unadulterated sexual ambition with nary a hint of care for the wellbeing of anyone but herself.
Which brings us back around to the point mentioned at the start of this review: yes, Celeste is a paedophile, but she is also a sociopath. She is in her corner and no one else’s; when even the slightest possibility of being caught in a compromised position presents itself, Celeste’s mind immediately switches into survivalist mode, where everything is a weapon, every escape route is catalogued, and every possible manner of diverting blame from her is considered. Mary Kay Letourneau this is not.
A huge part of the attraction for her appears to be that she gets to both capitalize on her developed “assets” and experience while also denying her age as a number and a restriction; she gets to act carefree, like a teenager in love eating shitty food and making out in the back seat of her car. She understands the difference between love and lust, and chooses (or her libido chooses for her) to ignore one and gift total control to the other.
The novel’s use of Romeo and Juliet as Celeste’s entry into Jack’s mind and heart is especially interesting, given their roles. While Celeste trades off the illusion of being a wannabe Juliet who wishes she could slip back into her fourteen-year-old self and everything associated with it, Jack is very much a true-blue Romeo who clearly would, given the extreme nature of late-novel events, if asked, join with her in a suicide pact.
Nutting has accomplished an impressive feat with Tampa in that she’s created something that is equal parts compelling and nauseating. I never once wanted to stop reading Tampa; the book is an exercise in tension, as it’s clear from the get-go that, eventually, they will be discovered and all kinds of shit will hit the fan. It has the propulsion of a cliffhanger-laden thriller, though much of its drive comes from wanting desperately to see how far Celeste will go to satisfy her lust, and how much further she is willing to venture out over the precipice in order to protect herself, her reputation, and the very cushy lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.
With that said, I also felt, upon finishing each chapter, as if I wanted to step into the shower and exfoliate with steel wool—the more abrasive the better. The degree of linguistic colour Nutting employs when opening the door to Celeste’s warped psyche is alarming in its creativity.
There is no cleanliness anywhere to be found in the pages of Tampa. Just different shades of depravity. Recommended, but know what you’re getting into—I could very well see this book turning a lot of unprepared stomachs. Still, it’s a wickedly good read that I kind of hate myself for enjoying as much as I did.