Book Reviews · 09/30/2013

TAMPA by Alissa Nutting


Ecco, 2013

Human beings are a collection of imperfections and drives, and it is our struggle against our baser desires that colors our lives. In Alissa Nutting’s TAMPA, readers are introduced to Celeste Price, a character so singularly defined by her sexual need, so embracing of it, that it informs how she perceives every aspect of life, and controls each movement she makes. The novel is a biography of her desire.

It is fitting then that TAMPA is related in the first person, a way for Celeste to be nakedly honest about her overwhelming sexual appetite for boys on the edge of puberty. The book opens with the defining line,

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…

And throughout the text she bares her wants freely. Nothing is held back:

When I finally sat up, I intentionally scooted off the edge at an angle so that the corner would knick my asshole and give me just a little pain to carry around like a consolation prize as I waited for classes to begin. Each time I’d shut down the chugging window AC unit and go to leave, it felt like I was unplugging the engine powering my fantasies.

Celeste’s candor when relating her need for pubescent boys cements how consumed by it she is. She can’t color, reconcile, or hide her fantasies because she is completely constructed by them. There is nothing else. Every moment in her life is judged against its ability to feed, compliment or challenge her sexual goals. This honesty also cements another important fact about her character; ultimately she doesn’t care what the reader or anyone else thinks. She simply states life as she sees it. The judgment of those who don’t have her consuming libido is beneath her.

Celeste’s taste is specific. The boys must be awakening to manhood, but without any outward physical signs of adulthood to ruin her fantasy. On the day of her first class she sizes up the boys and compares them to her ideal target,

I didn’t get a good look at their faces, but from what I’d spied of their bodies I knew I wasn’t interested: they were a hodgepodge of pre- and post-puberty. The silhouette of one’s biceps was visible from several feet away.

She is also careful to choose targets who are low psychological risks, stating that the most willing boys are off limits because self-assured students are more likely to talk about their encounters.

Celeste’s need to dominate the youth of her targets through sex coincides with her own determination to stave off any signs of aging on herself. She is obsessed with maintaining her own youthful attractiveness through spa treatments and beauty creams. But her fear of aging is truly a fear of becoming more outwardly and obviously separated from the young boys she desires, and the worry that one day she will be too old to garner their attention. Even in the novel’s climax this fundamental concern is clear,

I knew I should produce a look of worry or strain, but habit prevented me from forming any facial expression that might aid in the development of fine lines.

As Celeste is the novel’s narrator, and therefore every event and image is filtered through her perception, readers are given no chance to turn away from the most disturbing scenes in the book, all of which are related in explicit detail. When describing the conclusion of an encounter with a student, she says,

Gradually his thin fingers slid up my legs and across the patches of drying cum between my thighs, then he gripped the flesh of my cheeks at their fullest point and pulled them to opposing sides.

Vivid moments like this, especially moments shared between a pedophile and her victim, could be viewed by some as pornographic trash, but that’s not the case. Nutting’s novel is an exploration of several important social and philosophical constructs, among them the manner in which the legal system treats female sex offenders. The gender divide is apparent when Celeste is crafted into a doe-eyed innocent by her male attorney so that she can present herself as a confused young woman desperate to be liked. Her sentencing also illustrates the manner in which the male desire for sex is taken for granted; a view which demeans female sexuality as solely for the use of men regardless of their age.

The novel also poignantly shows the torture of young affection through Celeste’s first and most affecting victim Jack, whom Celeste centers on during the first day of her teaching career.

He seemed to be a larger, stretch-limbed version of a younger boy- chin-length light hair, unimposing features and a mouth that was devilishly wholesome.

From that time on she makes slow insteps to learn about the boy, win his trust, create secret shared times together, and ultimately initiate him into the world of sex. Through this readers see Jack’s innocence stolen slowly over the course of the writing, and his inability to understand what happens to him without the benefit of maturity adds a true and necessary sadness to the work. As a boy on the edge of puberty he can only view the relationship through the prism of familiar romantic storylines, and imagines that Celeste both loves him and will one day become his wife.

Jack’s confusion, sadness, and uninformed belief that he shares a love with Celeste makes Celeste’s separation from the rest of the world abundantly clear. She knows exactly how Jack sees their encounters and what he yearns for, but she is as detached from those feelings as she is from the love of her husband and the worldview of her fellow teachers. She is alone, stranded by her lust, and exists in the world as a completely different creature than those around her. Those who can’t understand her perception are navigated, bribed or destroyed in turn so that she can fill the craving that composes her being.

In the writing of this novel Alissa Nutting has ventured into dangerous territory and produced a work that impacts its readers not only viscerally with its sexual rawness, but also on the more valuable level of examining the psychological extremes of human desire. TAMPA is powerful in its refusal to fall into the familiar lesson-teaching and moralization in fiction. There is no epiphany, no turning back, no prescriptive platitude message which ends the work. Instead readers are taken into the bare, lust-driven world of Celeste Price, and left to find their own way out.

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Alissa Nutting is the author of the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone/Dzanc 2010), which won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction judged by Ben Marcus. Her fiction has or will appear in publications such as The Norton Introduction to Literature, Tin House, Bomb, and Conduit; her essays have appeared in Fence, the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, and other venues. An assistant professor of creative writing and English literature at John Carroll University, she lives in Ohio with her husband, her daughter, and two spoiled tiny dogs.

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Michael Wayne Hampton’s work has appeared in numerous publications such as decomP, Atticus Review, McSweeney’s, and The Southeast Review. Last year his work was nominated for Best American Short Stories. His collection Romance for Delinquents is forthcoming from Foxhead Books, and next year his novella Roller Girls Love Bobby Knight will be released by Artistically Declined Press. He can be reached via his website michaelwaynehampton.com.