By Alissa Nutting
212 pages, $25.99
By Christina Milletti
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
The school year is about to kick off and no other book this season will create the same hunger for long summer days filled with incorruptible light than Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, “Tampa.” Showcased on tabloid “news” program, “Inside Edition,” dubbed by Cosmopolitan magazine the “most controversial book of the summer,” while, at the same time, garnering high-end discussions at pivotal arts and literary magazines like Bomb, The Believer, and Tin House (to name just a few), Nutting’s novel has effortlessly connected with a diverse cultural milieu who are, normally, as eager to keep to their corners as teenage cliques at a sock hop.
“Tampa” has stirred readers up. Not bad work for a new novelist.
It’s too simple to say that “Tampa” – now a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize (the 2012 winner, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain, subsequently also won the National Book Critics Circle Award) – is a novel about pedophilia. “Tampa’s” narrator, Celeste Price – a 26-year-old English teacher with Barbie-styled good looks – is, undeniably, a remorseless sociopath with a penchant for 14-year-old boys. But the novel is as much about consumerism, the culture of beauty, and entrenched social perceptions about gender and sexuality that allow Price to exploit the students in her junior high classroom. Written in unflinching, single-minded prose, a smart aleck’s wink embeds each line with more than a touch of irony: Price is a lousy teacher of literature (whose lessons on “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Scarlet Letter” she naturally twists to promote her own agenda of desire and deceit), but she is without a doubt an impresario of small-minded attitudes.
Lovely Celeste knows that she’ll always get the benefit of the doubt because she is desired, consciously and unconsciously, by everyone around her: her colleagues and her neighbors, her students and their parents alike. She’s the “sexy teacher.” The co-worker’s “hot wife.” The pretty “neighbor next door.” “Tampa’s” foil characters prefer to let Celeste fill roles in their fantasy lives, instead of seeing her for who she really is.
The foreseeable result? Mayhem ensues. But Celeste is a criminal with a mean girl’s chirpy cynicism. And there’s plenty of slapstick, not to mention dark humor, to go around and keep the more unnerving elements of the book afloat. It’s this dangerous character composite that makes “Tampa” both troubling and hard to put down.
As the novel begins, Celeste Price has just secured her first teaching gig in Tampa, Fla. Married to a hunky cop from an affluent family, Celeste’s life seems as ideal to outsiders as the plastic figures of a wedding cake topper. But from the very first line of “Tampa,” Nutting’s narrator reveals that her enthusiasm for the new school year has little to do with her lesson plans, or her students’ excitement for their new backpacks and fall catalog fashions: Celeste Price is already fixated on teaching her male students more than just the nuances of metaphor. Dodging burnt out teachers, post-adolescent jocks and helicopter parents with meticulous care, Celeste is remorseless as she puts her crimes in motion. For her, the question is never “why” or “if” she’ll seduce one of her students … but when and how.
The fact that Celeste Price observes an education system in disarray as she pursues her first conquest (a young introvert named Jack), as well as reflects on the nuances of a consumerist culture that idealizes beauty and wealth in the face of society’s most pressing concerns, lends the novel an astute edge. What is it about the orderliness of a landscaped yard or well-groomed clothes – the social mores that form expectations of class – that prevent us from looking deeper at the people we encounter? It’s of no surprise that Celeste drives a red Corvette. It’s a carefully chosen element of her disguise.
Nutting’s interest in her protagonist is as personal as it is literary. As she reflects in multiple interviews, she went to high school with Debra LeFave, the blond, blue-eyed Florida middle school teacher who pleaded guilty in 2004 to sleeping with her 14-year-old student. In a twist of judicial infamy that captured the nation at the time, LeFave avoided prison time because, as her lawyer argued, she was much “too attractive” for jail. (Late in “Tampa,” Celeste Price similarly reflects that she’s “too pretty for prison.”) Instead, as part of a plea deal, LeFave was assigned three years of house arrest and seven years of probation. Nutting’s narrator is also able to work the legal system to her benefit in a conclusion to the novel that in no way ends her story.
“Tampa” has already drawn plenty of comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel “Lolita,” which portrays middle-aged literature professor Humbert Humbert, who, under the spell of a “nymphet’s” budding eroticism – as he famously tries to convince the reader – is led to commit increasingly desolate acts. But Nutting’s book, while recycling, (if shifting the gender of) Nabokov’s protagonist, along with its similarly dark humor, offers the reader a satire of an unusually eroticized nature. Nabokov’s lyricism skillfully clothes Humbert’s actions so that sexual violation imperceptibly slips into scenes as idealized, baroquely worded sagas (as he reflects, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”).
By contrast, Nutting’s high-octane prose peels back each sex act with the directness of an escort in drill sergeant’s garb, presenting the record of Celeste Price’s depravity in prose reminiscent of passages in a top-shelf magazine. Lines like “I just wallpapered my cervix with the name of a teenage boy” pepper the novel’s pages. Yes, Celeste Price is a monster. Dare we look away?
There are bound to be readers who wonder if the eroticization is necessary. (There are also bound to be readers who wonder if fictions about pedophiles should be written at all.) And, without a doubt, “Tampa” is troubling, because the novel asks contemplative readers to wonder about the limits of sexuality and violence, and the capacity of our culture to misconstrue one for the other, particularly when women are involved. (As Nutting reflects: “We’d rather have our nation’s women be beautiful pedophiles than be dowdy humanitarians with cankles.”)
At the same time, it would be unwise to ignore the fact that her novel has been embraced by media forums that regularly depend on stories of sex and violence for this misapprehension (and their sales) to continue. That Nutting seems to be putting this intersection of forces – it’s arguably the origin of much of the black humor in the novel – directly in the cross-hairs of the book is one of the many reasons the novel is worth checking out.
Given the range of books to which “Tampa” has been compared so far – Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Ellis’ “American Psycho,” Perrotta’s “Little Children,” Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin,” and Baker’s “Vox” have all been mentioned in passing – a connection to A.M. Homes’ novel “The End of Alice” is a downright surprising omission given that Homes (the 2013 winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction) paved the way for transgressive texts about gender by women. In particular, her novel “The End of Alice” (1996) takes up a narrative about two predatory protagonists: a jailed male pedophile and his female pen pal whose letters recount her ongoing pursuit of a young neighbor. As Homes reflects, “What I’m doing, which sometimes makes people uncomfortable, is saying the things we don’t want to say out loud.”
Put another way: She’s writing dangerous, discomfiting stories, the kind that remind readers that fiction’s role isn’t just entertainment; it’s presenting the truth, whether it’s welcome or not, regardless of whether it arises in socially acceptable language. There’s a tradition of women who look into our darkest places with an unerring eye and a satirist’s ear.
Nutting – whose first book, “Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls” was published by Buffalo press, Starcherone Books – may very well be taking this transgressive tradition to a new place.
Christina Milletti is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.