Alissa Nutting's mind-blowing debut, Tampa, is, like Nabokov's Lolita, a story of illicit sexual obsession and corrupted innocence; its narrator a highly literate adult who preys on early adolescents. But Tampa is a slimy, sticky inversion of the classic old-man-meets-young-girl scenario--and Celeste Price, the novel's unrepentant narrator, has more in common with American Psycho than Humbert Humbert.
Celeste is a monster disguised as a fantasy. A self-admitted "soulless pervert," she's 26, smoking hot and married to a rich, handsome idiot. Her marriage, like her new job teaching eighth-grade English, is a brutally calculated cover for her sole passion: a voracious lust for 14-year-old boys.
Tampa is not a confession--the word implies contrition--but rather an unadulterated account of Celeste's seduction (and inevitable destruction) of one of her students. Jack Patrick, "a stretch-limbed version of a younger boy," is the perfect mark: sweet, wholesome and absently parented by a single father. Celeste easily lures him into a furtive, doomed affair, which they conduct in the backseat of her red Corvette and at Jack's empty house after school.
The contrast between Jack's innocence and Celeste's predatory, salacious manipulation is both repulsive and mesmerizing. In less skilled hands, Tampa would be laughably gratuitous at best and downright offensive at worst. But it's a testament to Nutting's stunning talent that the sex--and there's a lot of it--is extremely explicit and yet undeniably artful, as in Celeste's description of her first encounter with Jack: "Every action of my adult life," she recalls, "had been engaged in setting up a situation that would allow me to feel exactly this: the slim, curious pressure of a teenage boy pushing into the center of my being."
The story takes on the swampy, close heat of the Tampa suburbs as Celeste recounts her increasingly depraved transgressions and the collateral victims pile up. She cares for nothing but her own pleasure, and she eliminates obstacles to it with masterful and shameless determination. She isn't interested in gaining the reader's sympathy, so--unlike Humbert--there is no reason to think she's anything less than chillingly honest, even though she deceives everyone else.
Celeste keeps getting away with it for the same reason that you'll keep reading about her: she's abhorrent, but she's fascinating--and Nutting has announced herself as a writer who is as gifted as she is bold. --Hannah Calkins
Shelf Talker: In this sure-to-be-controversial debut, a sexy 26-year-old female teacher with a ravenous lust for 14-year-old boys recounts the seduction of one of her students.