I’ve read a lot of outrageous books in my time, but Alice Nutting’s Tampa is right up there with the best of them. (The title refers to the Florida suburb in which it is set, but it could also be a play on words, because the main character does “tamper” with people she shouldn’t.)
It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but there’s something about this novel which had me reading it at break-neck pace — I raced through it in just a day or two — and then wished I’d not galloped to the ending so quickly.
To be perfectly frank, this novel isn’t for everyone. Many will be put off by the subject matter and the explicit sex (page one opens with a masturbation scene, just to set the mood for the rest of the book). And that’s understandable — not everyone wants to read about a female teacher grooming young male students for her sexual pleasure.
But what makes this novel such a riveting read despite the unpalatable concept at its heart is the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit. This is the voice of a 26-year-old woman who knows that what she is doing is illegal but doesn’t give two hoots about anything other than feeding her own insatiable appetite for 14-year-old boys.
I’ve not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita but I rather suspect Celeste Price, eighth grade English teacher, with her blond hair, red corvette, ultra-handsome husband and unusual sexual obsessions, might give Humbert Humbert a run for his money.
Indeed, it’s hard to fathom a more loathsome character in fiction, but I was completely drawn in by Celeste in a disturbing I-don’t-wish-to-be-complicit-but-can’t-help-it kind of way. I found myself hanging on to every word she said, and even though I became more and more shocked by her outrageous behaviour — and the sheer kinkiness of her relationship with student Jack Patrick — I was kind of willing her on and hoping she’d get away with it — which is an unusual position to be in as a reader, particularly when you know that the narrator is not only abhorrent and immoral, her actions could have long-lasting and damaging psychological impacts on her victims.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Nutting’s titillating, often perverse, novel is the questions it throws up. If Celeste is every teenage boy’s fantasy, what’s so wrong about her hitting on them? Where are the lines drawn between teacher and pupil? If Celeste was not beautiful, would she get away with this kind of behaviour? Is her marriage to Ford, a policeman who works night shift, to blame?
Of course the storyline is preposterous — or is it? We certainly know from news stories and the like that there are plenty of men out there who prey on teenage girls, but are there women, in the real world, preying on young teenage boys?
Tampa brings to mind Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb, which features an equally perverse and deviant character — a man who develops an unhealthy relationship with a young girl — but is far more explicit and confronting, perhaps because it places us firmly in the head of the perpetrator.
While I would not describe this as a comfortable read, it’s certainly attention grabbing, fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, the literary equivalent of a car crash, and yet it’s one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read all year.