Tampa is covered in fur. Cheap fur. Velour almost, but even cheaper. Even though Tampa, amazingly, is a hardback book. It’s the dust jacket that is covered in rough-to-the-touch synthetic fuzz.
Except for the title, which is scrawled into it in white like chalk scratched across a blackboard. A fantastical blackboard. A sexy blackboard.
We all know what Tampa is about. There have been reviews. (A lot of them, encouragingly, for a younger writer whose first collection came out from Starcherone.) And if we didn’t read those or the flap, the narrator tells us right away: in marrying her husband,
I hoped his wealth might provide me with a distraction, but this backfired—it left me with no unfulfilled urges except the sexual. I could feel my screaming libido clawing at the ornately papered walls of our gated suburban home.
Celeste’s sole sexual urge is for teenage boys, a crystallization of her first sexual experience and the immortality it implied. We find out immediately that her entire career path—middle school teacher—has been focused around fulfilling that urge.
There is no coquettishness here. No clever lead-up to the announcement of her particular obsession. The book is about one thing and one thing only: the wholehearted pursuit of sex with 14 year-old boys.
Celeste is as systematic as she is direct. This grates, at first. Her character appears one-dimensional. The plot appears to mine for shock value without much at all to say. I wondered, after a bit of this, how closely this depiction came to Nutting’s real-life inspiration for the story (and Nutting’s high school classmate) Debra LaFave, or any of the other cases that came out around the same time across the country. Did these sex offenders set out so consciously and feverishly to do what they did? Does any mind work so singularly?
But the readerly experience subsumes all of this. By page 40 I had found myself entering into an almost meditative state: Celeste masturbates furiously on her classroom desk; Celeste stalks her ideal student; Celeste keeps Jack after class and interrogates him about his sexual history. The book begins to feel like a thought-experiment in how long narrative can run on the fuel of a single motivation. And it works: the smut of it runs together into a bizarre, relieving, single-minded stream. Once we become sure we will have no last-minute changes of intention, no inward ethical dilemmas, we can sit on Celeste’s shoulder as she describes in exacting detail the steps through which she goes to secure Jack’s compliance in an affair. By page 80 I was so fully in Celeste’s mind that I wrote in the margins: “Am I crazy? Obsessive? Unfit for the world?”
Of course, the upshot of Celeste’s obsession gaining so much traction with the reader is you are forced to consider that you find the book sexy. It might help that I’m a male. It might help, too, that there’s a whole condoning culture around the older woman seducing the younger boy: see dictionary entry for “cougar”; see Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” Part of why Tampa is more confusing even than Lolita (its obvious, immediate subtext) is it doesn’t feel all that bad to find Celeste’s heartless manipulation of (and screaming orgasms with) her male student arousing. And this is when you begin to notice that, even though Celeste’s intention stays unwavering all along, the book’s relationship to you is changing wildly.
And then it gets real. It gets real three times, to be exact, and it is these clicks in Tampa’s trajectory that I think take it from being an interesting book to being a really, really good book. Suddenly, it’s not just about how weird the reading experience has become, how feverishly you scan the book while devouring a burrito at Chipotle, how deeply you hope nobody looks over your shoulder at the words you are reading. All at once, Jack declares:
“It sucks how we won’t get to go do stuff together for like four more years,” he said. Jack had already adopted the illusion that we’d date through his entire high school career and beyond, a fantasy I didn’t attempt to ruin. In truth, our relationship’s shelf life was closer to that of an elderly Labrador. One more year seemed to be the most realistic to hope for; two was very unlikely. He’d grow, his voice would further deepen, defining muscle would thicken and broaden him. I couldn’t imagine remaining attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest. “I mean even stupid stuff, you know? Like getting dinner or going to a basketball game.”
I mean, it was inevitable. Of course Jack is going to be misled as to Celeste’s actual investment in the “relationship,” and of course that is going to be its demise. But when it happens—when her cold, obsessive sexuality meets his young naïveté—you realize, Jesus, people are being hurt here. It’s no longer sexy. Suddenly it’s drama.
What makes Nutting’s approach to these more “real” moments unique is she narrates them through the sociopathic lens of Celeste Price. You see the world come alive. You see Jack get enveloped in jealousy and bitterness toward his dad, whom Celeste feigns interest in to get more time with his son. You see Jack’s dad actually die (the second “real” click) and Celeste watches him keel over without even extending a hand. A strange world unfolds outside of her, and she narrates it like it’s happening on the other side of the snow globe.
But she is responding, you realize—just according to a completely different rubric of relation to the world. After Jack’s father dies Celeste has “a slight urge to look through his wallet and pilfer any cash—there would be a triumphant feel in buying something with money offered up by Buck’s dead body, no matter how miniscule the amount.” Later, instead of counseling near-suicidal Jack as she does another student earlier in the book, she argues that his mind has become removed from the desires of his body and draws him into an invigorated and heightened round of sex. And in what I see as the book’s third “real” moment, after Jack has caught her with a new boy and exploded in violent jealousy, he too suddenly realizes the extent of her skewed motivations:
“All so nobody would find you out,” Jack interrupted, his hands straining against my collarbone.
But after saying this, his grip on my shoulders softened. Something important had registered in his mind, drawing open his lips and causing his eyes to grow alert and panicked.
Seconds later, Jack began to run.
At the end of the day, Tampa isn’t an indictment against the frivolity of modern existence and the extremes it leads us to. It’s not a humanization of heretofore unthinkable acts, either. It’s not even an astute gender reversal of Lolita, as a lot of reviews paint it—or not solely that, anyway. Its point, as with the point of most good stories, can’t be boiled down to a simple moral or catchphrase. Instead Tampa makes the reader feel things, complex, uncomfortable things, that reveal the world and our inner selves in ways we don’t necessarily like. As close a formulation as I can come to that is Celeste’s description of the indignant mothers protesting outside the door of her apartment while she awaits trial:
Of course none of them actually looked fearful about anything, least of all me. It was quite the opposite—in my trial they’d found a sense of purpose that rendered them giddy and energized.
Tampa energizes the reader that way, not least because it is full of graphic descriptions of sex, but not only because of that either. It is a story, first and foremost. And it is worth getting caught up in.
Dennis James Sweeney lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Find his work at dennisjamessweeney.com.