Well, I dare say.
Perhaps it’s not the best way to start this review, but there’s something about the book’s title that is not quite right. It is beautifully concise and it does have some titillating vagueness and I’m sure Alissa Nutting put much thought into it, but all I could think of were travel guides and lots of various reasons for hating that American town. Tampa. I remain in two minds about it. Even despite the fact that yes indeed – both stories, real and fictional, took place in that particular area in the state of Florida.
Lots of things have been said about this book, but two ideas seemed especially eye-catching and ubiquitous. One: it is the most scandalous/controversial novel of the summer. Perhaps of the whole year. Two: it is a modern update of Lolita. Now I’m not going to argue with the first point – perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. What’s controversial these days anyway? Though I will concede that it will take one hell of a book to beat Tampa in that department. As for Lolita, I really don’t know how to put it without coming off as a snob, so I’ll just say that Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Nutting’s Celeste Price are both infatuated with a person younger than 15. Similarities end there. Having said that, those who mention Tampa in the same breath with 50 Shades Of Grey are equally mad. Gratuitous sex, female author and popularity (a lot more modest in this case) make for a rather shaky analogy.
The novel itself. Interestingly for a book tackling paedophilia, it never felt like this was Alissa Nutting’s subject matter. Rather, it read like a story of one particular pervert: Celeste Price, a 26-year old schoolteacher who is erotically driven (I don’t consider myself a prude, but Jesus Christ those details) to vulnerable boys at the age of 14. Not the ones who want sex, but the ones who don’t know or are too scared to show how much they want sex. Celeste has a husband and is relatively well off. She is attractive to boys and men (even after all the sordid details, you would still want her) and seems to be quite successful on her job. The problem is, the only reason why she took up that job in the first place was the chance to meet that one boy she will fuck. To give you an idea of who we are dealing with here, Celeste’s way of soothing a 14-year old boy who’s suffering from a terrible shock is to fellate him. There’s no question that pathology is extremely well conveyed here. As well as the troubled, furtive mind of a sick woman.
There’s one particular boy: Jack Patrick. Needless to say, most of the book is an eyeball-piercing account of Celeste’s secret sex life (or not that secret; sometimes she has to do it with her husband – basically, ‘shut up and stick it in’). Blowjobs, handjobs, rim jobs, there’s very little that isn’t there. Which is not to say that Tampa is not a well written book. There’s an odd balance issue: the novel does seem tame when the raunchy parts aren’t there and it comes off excessive when they are. Still, I’d argue that there’s a lot of fine writing in there, with the similes rather effectively ranging from somewhat romantic (the colour of Jack’s eyes is ‘virginal brown’) to quirky but intriguing (sex is ‘seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life’) to inevitably gross (semen’s taste is described as ‘metallic salt’, no less). It works. Besides, some scenes are truly powerful. There’s no denying the parts where Jack tells Celeste about his love and wants to hear the same from her. Something she absolutely can’t do. Can’t, shouldn’t, unable to. Or the way she describes the effects she had on Jack’s physical development. Or that crazy dream of hers where boys are dancing around her husband’s corpse. In other words, Tampa is the sort of book that will get stuck in your brain for a long long time.
If there’s a book I will compare this to, it’s Zoe Heller’s Notes On A Scandal. It is obvious that Heller’s book had much more finesse and restraint about it – but then again, Tampa deals with pathology. And shock element or not, it does the job well. Is it a disturbing read? It is, by all means. Any sane person will encounter enough wince and cringe inducing moments before reaching the novel's end. However, what you might find particularly disturbing are not even sex scenes in school rooms or toilets for the disabled, but the fact that some crimes seem not just unpunished. They seem unpunishable.