Tampa, by Alissa Nutting. New York, New York: Ecco. 272 pages. $25.99, hardcover.
Amid the hype for this eagerly awaited and in some cases already reviled summer release, the reader launching into Tampa may as well be Alissa Nutting’s pathological protagonist readying for her first day of teaching. The difference is that the reader will surely not prepare by means of “an excited loop of hushed masturbation” beside a sleeping husband. Divergent, too, is the inspiration for such anticipatory arousal: a suitable fourteen-year-old boy who will fill one of Celeste Price’s eighth-grade seats. Yet to read the book’s first page and then walk away for a time—allowing expectation for what will fill this classroom to build—may prove worthwhile, because senses are about to be set upon by a calculated temptress tracking an easy target.
Perhaps no other release this year has garnered such early attention, or incited such vehement judgment, as Nutting’s debut novel. As the follow-up to her collection of stories, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, this unflinching account takes brave satirical aim at the double standard of victimization. What of consent when the offender is a woman? A young woman? A young, attractive woman? In a society that vilifies teacher/student sex yet fetishizes hot female teachers, the wink, wink element of the crime has certainly infiltrated a broader sense of sexual acceptance that downplays wrongdoing when the perpetrator is pretty and the victim is pubescent. But Tampa is poised to shock this fantasy, and every justification thereof, right out of its reader.
For she may only be twenty-six, and gorgeous, but make no mistake: Ms. Price is a predator. Her erotic pampering session opens the novel as she prepares to reap the carnal rewards of a college switch in major to education—a career path that would lead Celeste “back to eighth grade permanently.” But this time, the classroom is her own and the lessons are all hers to teach. The prized student, Jack Patrick, his only fault “the hesitant politeness to his movements,” is on a collision course with a woman whose “complicated needs” incite an escalating series of actions—and sex acts. Though ruinous, Celeste makes not a single attempt to curb her voracious appetite as she goes to devastating lengths to get what she wants.
And from the moment she sees “something in his chin-length blond hair, in the diminutive leanness of his chest,” Celeste wants Jack. Her sole requisite for finding a boy with “either the shame or the preternatural discipline required to keep a secret,” Celeste considers Jack’s broken home the proving ground for a relationship that she’ll use extreme means to protect—for the time being. Because with Jack’s impending manhood and her “screaming libido” that can’t be curbed for long, Celeste is well aware that their liaison is set to a ticking clock. Holding responsible her first sexual experience at the age of fourteen for her permanent “imprinting . . . with a fixed map of arousal,” here is a woman who anticipates the challenges she will face as she sees this entanglement through and then hunts her next ideal, though temporary, partner. Luckily for her, morality proves no hindrance.
So from inside her extension classroom at Jefferson Junior High, Celeste sets a trap:
Having a mobile classroom meant that I could truly make it my own. I’d put up opaque curtains, brought in my favorite perfume and spritzed it onto them, as well as onto the cloth seat of my rolling desk chair.
Beyond these lures, the unit is filled with little more than the posters that came free with the class’s textbooks and a learning that will torment handpicked students for years to come. And more “ornately papered walls” support the discomfiting space this book occupies—lascivious encounters that draw the reader’s eye but do little to educate on seduction at the hands of a sociopath. Because Celeste is driven to devour boyhood, and there is—despite the graphic nature of Nutting’s descriptive work—a more frightening reality than that expressed through these devious exchanges: Celeste Price, and all the things she doesn’t show the reader; all the things she does not see herself.
What she does observe, at least fleetingly and when able to tear her eyes from the “pert adolescent males” that fill her days, is a husband who, at thirty-one, she considers “far too old.” Decidedly turned off by a man “seventeen years past [her] window of sexual interest,” Celeste sadistically renders Ford, a handsome police officer with family money, a fool on more than one occasion. But her true scorn is reserved for Janet Feinlog, a veteran world history teacher whose physical flaws—premature baldness, edema-swollen calves and ankles—do “not live in isolation.” For Celeste, “sometimes it was a relief to do something unattractive in private, to confirm that [she’s] deeply flawed when so many others imagine [her] to be perfect.” For Janet, however, an abiding unattractiveness means that there is no need to attempt concealment of her defects because years of teaching have rendered her worse than ugly—she is invisible, and asexually so.
Because everything is about Celeste, and when looking at Jack what she really sees is the way he watches her: “Jack stared in the way one might watch a waterfall—there was something profoundly hopeful in his glance, an optimism that the world held more wonder than he’d ever thought to guess.” By way of an approving nod, one that says, “You’re seeing exactly what you think you’re seeing,” Nutting could be talking directly to her reader instead of to the student gazing hungrily at his perverted teacher’s chest. Because though Celeste appears to hunt these boys for both sustenance and sport, it is their attention that sustains her sense of self. Depriving her of the ability to feel “half-god to [their] mortal”—whether through her own aging, the boys’ maturation (that she ironically hastens), or the legal system—is to truly unleash the monster beneath the glamorous mask.
Despite the intentionally controversial nature of the novel, it would be a crime to overlook the fine crafting of both Celeste and her chilling admittances. Because Alissa Nutting’s work with characterization and pacing is exhilarating, drawing the reader closer to depravity than they’ll likely feel comfortable by way of a delicious humor that paints Celeste, even for half-seconds, as the kind of woman others might envy: bold, driven, engaging and empowered. And then, just as quickly, she is again the predator that the author seems intent on reminding us she cannot help but be—just like her male peers.
And if the first page of Tampa is suggestive, the last is a shot to the gut, its damage lingering long after Celeste offers her final lesson:
For now, my youth and looks make this easy. I try not to think about the cold years ahead, when time will slowly poach my youth and my body will begin its untoward changes…. But that won’t be for many more years; there’s lots of fun to be had between then and now.
Erin McKnight is the publisher of Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent press publishing collections of literary fiction. Erin’s own writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and W.W. Norton’s The Best Creative Nonfiction. Erin lives in Dallas with her husband and young daughter.