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?”
August 19th, 2013 / 11:00 am