Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Please don’t compare Alissa Nutting’s Tampa to Nabokov’s Lolita. There are only the barest of similarities between the two. The glaring difference is that Nabokov created an arresting protagonist with incredibly crafted language. Nutting does neither of these things.
Tampa is about a 26 year old teacher whose sole purpose in life is to seduce and have sex with her adolescent make students. Celeste is young, good looking and has a single minded drive to entrap a young boy. She even drives a Little Red Corvette (a highly unsubtle ‘baby you’re much too fast’?), the backseat of which is apparently roomy enough for all manner of sexual acrobatics (interestingly, a reviewer for the Tampa Bay Times points out that Corvette’s don’t have back seats). She’s even married an ‘old’ man (he’s 31) whose demanding job as a police officer and personal family wealth give her time to do as she pleases. She barely has a relationship with him, often drugging him so that she has time alone - time she spends in excruciatingly detailed masturbatory sessions, for instance, or stalking young boys. Tampa is entirely from Celeste’s point of view: it is her story of two particular relationships she has with boys in the middle school she teaches at.
This could have been interesting, but oddly it isn’t. It is strange and uncomfortable to be sure, but once that is established, there isn’t much else going on. Tampa has one thing going for it - shock value. But how shocking is an idea if that single premise is all there is in an entire novel? At some point (and fairly early on), Celeste’s lascivious narrative becomes boring, since that is very much all there is to her and to the book.
It’s all entirely from Celeste’s POV - which means the sex is celebrated by her, it is desired desperately and enjoyed immensely, told with the same treatment of the erotic as if it were between two adults which is what makes this particularly disconcerting, rather than the quality of the writing. Is the point of the book is to show just how the lusting mind of a predator works in a completely single faceted way? For Celeste is nothing more - she is a completely weak, one dimensional protagonist. Shallow, vain, self-absorbed, her desire for young boys is her only defining feature.
I’ve read that Nutting went to the same high school as Debra Lafave, the Tampa school teacher who was was arrested in 2004 for having sex with her 14 year old student, the woman whose lawyer famously said was ‘too pretty to go to prison’ (a line Celeste uses to describe herself in the novel). Apparently Celeste is based on Lafave. One would think that Lafave was more interesting than Nutting’s Celeste is.
Of course this is an interesting premise. Of course it is an important discussion to have. Are female sex offenders motivated by the same urges male sex offenders are? Are they both as much of a threat to society? Are female sex offenders treated the same way as male sex offenders? Do we feel less worried if a pre-teen or teen age boy is coerced into sex by a woman than we do when it’s a man coercing an underage girl? But Tampa doesn’t seem to take its subject matter seriously. In fact, what makes it bearable is that it doesn’t appear to be written with any seriousness at all. How could it be? It’s more or less just a string of lurid sex scenes in-dispersed with irrelevant, unentertaining cliches.