Fear not, friends. I am not recommending a book about Florida. Instead, I'm recommending a book about a woman that gets into junior high teaching because of her thing for prepubescent boys.
Short sell: Nutting creates a woman character you've probably never seen before in this wildly entertaining satire, and gives us writers much to think about. Also: LOOK AT THIS BRILLIANT COVER.
Long sell: I go deeper in an essay focused on the novel's craft.
Reading time = approx 5 minutes
Tampa, by Alissa Nutting, is the story of a twenty-six-year-old middle school teacher, Celeste, who seduces multiple fourteen-year-old male students.
Celeste defines herself by lust. Her first statement to us, the readers is this: “I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep” (1). Every sentence and every thought that follows is consumed with a very specific desire, directed at pre-teen boys. Celeste is terrifically self-aware. She knows she should be directing her lust towards her perfect, handsome, rich husband, the one she doses with Ambien each night so he won’t pester her for sex. She knows that the desire for young boys comes from her own sexual awakening at fourteen, and probably a desire to be forever young and on the cusp of her body’s power. She knows all this, admits it to readers, while also refusing to repress or deny herself. Instead, she chooses teaching as a career and marries her husband for security, all so she can indulge her lust for young boys.
We’ve seen variants of this story before. Male characters in books, in movies, in life, are fascinated by and pursue younger women, even preteens. We just haven’t seen the tables turned like this, haven’t seen a woman character as rapacious, driven, and gleeful as Celeste. And therein lies the power and trick of the book.
Nutting has created a repellent, self-confessed predator, one who assesses her targets with cool and analytical detachment, who picks her boys in part because they’re alone and vulnerable: “From student teaching, I’d learned that the very boys who likely wouldn’t kiss and tell were the hardest to kiss in the first place…I hoped for a set of working parents who didn’t have time to decode lies or do micromanagement parenting” (25, 35). Celeste is mean and manipulative, dismissing most adults (especially other women) as useless, ugly, fat, or repressed. “Aren’t people revolting in general?” Celeste asks her young target Jack Patrick as they watch traffic and pedestrians from her car (105).
But Nutting also makes Celeste a fully realized, intelligent person, who makes some compelling points about how ridiculous and unfair our society is: “There was no way for women, for anyone, to gracefully age. After a certain point, any detail, like the woman’s cheerleader hairstyle, that implied youth, simply looked ridiculous” (42). She’s twenty-six, but Celeste feels the clock is already running out, and imagines throwing herself at her young student: “Take me right now, through this window,” she’d say. “You’re too young to realize we don’t have much time” (42).
Celeste also serves, in a twisted way, as a bit of wish fulfillment for women. She is fully in control of each sexual encounter, without fear. This is not always the case for women, since the potential for sexual violence or abuse is ever present in adult heterosexual dynamics. In fact, Celeste takes inordinate pleasure in defining sex for each of these boys, setting a standard to which each boy will compare other women for the rest of their lives: “I’d be the sexual yardstick for [Jack Patrick’s] whole life…Like a tollbooth in his memory, every partner he’d have afterward would have to pass through the gate of my comparison, and it would be a losing equation” (96).
In the course of my research for my MFA craft essay, I’ve been examining many experimental works, looking at how non traditional structures and techniques may better tell the story of women. Abandoning cause-and-effect, along with linearity. But in Tampa, Nutting uses a traditional, even old-fashioned narrative, including carefully crafted, highly readable syntax and diction, logical and easy-to-follow organization, and a very straightforward, start-to-finish linear tale. It is earnest, clear, and hard-working prose, that presents our narrator in all her glory and makes us laugh at the strangest moments. Witness this example, as Celeste sits outside Jack Patrick’s house, assessing the neighborhood and using a vibrator on herself:
A sluggish couple walking a Bassett hound turned the corner…I felt like a child when I saw middle-aged partners and remembered they had sex together — there was still that initial sense of horror and denial. What aspect of either one of them could be pleasant to touch or to see, even in the darkest room? Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened. …Who was that queen who tried to keep her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins? She should’ve had sex with them instead, or at least had sex with them before killing them (40).
Nutting chose her storytelling method deliberately. The content of Tampa could be and probably is considered by most readers to be pretty shocking. Against a backdrop of almost comic seductions in English class, jaw-dropping sex scenes with minors, and the blood that’s spilled to keep secrets hidden, the book needs a familiar, even comforting storytelling method. Adding a crazy format might detract from the crazy story itself.
But there’s another reason for this traditional style. With a firm story footing, readers are able to better see how Nutting parodies our most familiar cultural images and satirizes life in contemporary America. Nutting skewers our society’s obsession with youth, with a twenty-six-year-old religiously receiving the Botox regimen of a senior citizen and soaking up youth through young boys. We follow the obsession with beauty to its logical conclusion, seeing how Celeste evades jail by a legal defense based on her looks. We better understand how film and books and art (and politics) approve of men who target young women, don’t control their urges, and look at teenage boys and sexual misbehavior with a diminutive “boys will be boys” mentality. We are forced to think about that ridiculous sexy teacher motif that shows up in every rock video and porn film.
Nutting’s tactics may, admittedly, work better with women readers, something I discovered after a miniature experiment. Shortly after I finished reading Tampa, I lent the book to a friend, a heterosexual male in his 40s. Besides returning it to me with folded pages and corners—a betrayal of sorts since I treat my books better than anything else in my house—we had very different reactions. Where I saw parody, he saw wish fulfillment. Where I saw predatory behavior toward teenage boys, he saw something altogether different. No teenage boy would consider this abuse, he insisted, and wished he had his own Celeste at fourteen. When I pressed him, asking if he’d feel the same way if the characters were opposite genders, he balked. We then discussed how men and women are often raised differently, boys taught to indulge their lust and women to resist and hide their sexual desires. My friend listened, then proceeded to tell me again how he’d allow his son to date a teacher if she was especially hot like Celeste.
I’m confident Nutting anticipated a bit of this gendered divide, so she heightened the ludicrousness as the book proceeds. Celeste is caught, of course, her lust overriding her caution and planning. But events get more comic and exaggerated, almost like Nutting is throwing all she has in there. If we missed the satire before we get it by the end, when the defense attorney sums up the bombshell testimony by Jack Patrick: “What that jury saw was a red-blooded American teenage boy asked to repent for nailing a hot blonde. I think our chances are good” (260).
The chances are better than good, and Celeste wins her trial. Nutting then uses her traditional storytelling methods to do one more thing: destroy from within the common narratives for women. In popular women’s fiction, and even in literary fiction and canon classics, a proper ending for a woman character would be marriage, kids, suicide, and/or grappling with identity based on these female concerns. Here, Celeste has been given another chance, but leaves her husband and refuses to have children (in part because she’s concerned about being tempted to molest any boys she has). Most important, she continues her pursuit of young boys. She’s learned nothing, except perhaps how to find better targets. She does, however, know what her future holds:
For now, my youth and looks make [attracting these boys] easy. I try not to think about the cold years ahead, when time will slowly poach my youth and my body will begin its untoward changes. I’ll have to pare down to certain types: the motherless boys, or those so sexually ravenous they don’t mind my used condition. Eventually I’ll have to find a better-paying job in an urban area with runaways hungry for cash…But that won’t be for many more years; there’s lots of fun to be had between now and then (262).
Nutting, Alissa. Tampa. HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.