Tampa by Alissa Nutting

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Tampa

Author: Alissa Nutting

Type of Book: Fiction, Ripped from the Headlines, hebephilia

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, because I had to create the category “hebephilia” just for this book…

Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2013, you can get a copy here:

Comments: My friend Jessica and I have very similar reading tastes in fiction so when I saw her mention on Facebook that she was left uneasy by this book, I knew I needed a copy. Jessica is not one to be nonplussed, so I was intrigued. I have to say her reaction was on the mark.

Before I begin discussing this book in earnest, here is a brief synopsis: Celeste Price, who is definitely a stand-in for the real life hebephile Debra Lafave, is sexually attracted only to fourteen-year-old boys, preferably before they start puberty. This is especially problematic because she is married to an older man and has just begun a job teaching 8th grade English. Celeste is in her early 20s, quite attractive, and a complete sociopath, wearing her mask of sanity and passing muster with other adults but engaging in risky behaviors, like very public masturbation. Preying on the children in her classrooms, she soon has an adolescent boy in her grasp. I don’t think it is a spoiler to reveal that Celeste eventually is hoist by her own petard (or rather busted out because her lusts make her sloppy) and comes to a very bad end because that should pretty much go without saying. In a sense, it doesn’t matter how this book ends because the reason to read this book is to get a good look at the inner workings of a sociopath.

I feel very much like this book hits a discordant note, but it also occurs to me that I feel this way because Nutting got Celeste absolutely right. She nailed Celeste. And that is why the book was fascinating, forcing me to read it in two sittings, and left me feeling empty and disturbed. Celeste has no self-awareness beyond acknowledging her anti-social sexual orientation and the way she appears to others. She is an empty shell and she does not care. She can fine tune her behaviors to fit any situation and is a canny observer of people, but she only observes people in so far as they can benefit her in some manner. In this regard, she is an apex predator. She reads very accurately those around her, devouring them when it suits her. She is shallow and her sexual needs render her ridiculous at times, but her shallowness is a marvel and no one else sees how ridiculous she is – only the reader is privy to the borderline idiocy that propels Celeste into action.

And that’s the hell of it, you know. How many more times can we read books wherein the major message is that evil is banal? Or that the monsters in our midst are generally pretty trivial people? I think that was part of the discordant note this book hit with me – we’ve read this story before and before and will read it again and again.

Yet this book was so compulsively readable because Nutting, rather audaciously, does not try to humanize Celeste. At no point does the reader (well, this reader, at least) relate to Celeste because she is a fucking sociopath. Her lust for boys is never explained on any level that could allow the reader to understand Celeste. This isn’t Lolita. If you want a Humbert Humbert-style scene of reflection wherein Celeste understands the ruin she caused in two boys, you won’t get it. Nor will you have much connection to either of the boys Celeste molests. The book is best read as a look at sociopathy and as, as grotesque as it may sound, a reasonably funny book. But this isn’t dark humor in the vein of Nabokov – this is campy Nicole Kidman in To Die For, not solemn and confused Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal.

Though Celeste is married to an adult, her life is more or less a masturbate-athon involving fantasies of nubile boys. She preens sexually before her class, twisting her hair and and letting it down, crossing her legs seductively while sitting on her desk, making sure her nipples are hard and her cleavage all too visible. At times we are in Celeste’s mind so thoroughly that it is hard to stomach. I reckon it’s hard for too many adult women to read this book and not want to punch Celeste until her pretty face isn’t so pretty any more (it was interesting, seeing my own humanity rise up when I read this book – I am far more maternal than I ever knew).

Celeste really is a terrible human being, a beautiful blonde who can rationalize anything. She actually thinks that having sex with Jack, one of her fourteen-year-old students, has actually helped him.

He certainly didn’t seem traumatized or the victim of something harmful – in fact his expression was alive with a dewy glow. Far more so than when I’d first picked him up, he looked spirited and engaged. He looked improved.

And initially Jack may seem improved. His home life is a mess, he seldom sees his father, and he’s got a hot adult with an awesome car giving him gifts and having sex with him. But before long the sexual manipulation takes its toll on his life in ways I could not imagine when I began reading this book. Celeste eventually has to charm Jack’s father, leading him to believe she is sexually interested in him, in order to continue to have sexual access to Jack. And knowing that his teacher/girlfriend is also having unpleasant sex with his father does Jack no favors.

But I’m getting a head of myself.

Celeste stalks Jack before she begins her seduction, masturbating frantically outside his home as she determines how much time Jack spends alone, spying on him, finding out his weaknesses. One of her observations during her stakeout show Celeste’s sociopathic nihilism where other people are concerned, as well as her completely irrational thought processes. She is sitting in her car outside Jack’s house when Jack’s father comes home from work.

He was an obvious multitasker. One hand held a phone to his ear; the other wheeled an oversized green trash bin behind him casually, like a suitcase – he could just as easily have been walking through the airport terminal. There was something repulsive (and revealing) about talking on a cell phone while handling garbage. Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?

Celeste makes this incredible jump in logic from multitasking to questioning the value in all human relationships because Celeste would never combine taking out the trash and talking on the phone because every single action in her life has one of two purposes: to show the world how incredibly beautiful and together she is or to gain access to teen boys. Taking out the trash is not something Celeste would do, period, and if she is speaking on her phone, her only concern would be how she looked to anyone who might be observing her, not communicating with the person on the other end. Any activity that does not seek one of Celeste’s two goals will simply confirm to her that the bulk of humanity is just going through the motions, unable to experience the emotional connections she thinks she achieves with the boys she exploits.

Celeste’s victim selection shows her to be an excellent predator – strange that all of this turns out so poorly, but, then again, lust often makes fools out of even the best predator. Here Celeste is considering one of the boys in her class as a sort of second-choice option, and calculates the risk involved in pursuing him.

Trevor was an artsy sort, whose hair was a wiggish crop of curls. A pensive journaler, he’d already asked if I’d look at some of his poetry. Since he walked home from school and didn’t have to rush to catch a bus, he often came up to talk books and writing with me after class. But he had a girlfriend; most of his poetry was devoted to professing his love for her – Abby Fischer, in my second period, memorable for her chunk of her dyed purple hair. Being the romantic type, if Trevor ever did stray, he’d undoubtedly confess to her minutes after the act, likely through a series of frantic text messages that peppered statements of regret with frown-faced emoticons. He also came off as clingy, which could prove to be downright toxic. Trevor seemed like the type who would be ever more demanding, who would accept nothing less than symbiosis. Plus, based on his clothing, his parents were extremely lenient. He had no fear of authority, which meant he would not be worried enough about getting caught and wouldn’t act with the necessary level of caution.

This shows so well Celeste’s mask of sanity. She could pick apart why it was that Trevor would not make a good victim, but she seemingly had no notion that any adolescent boy would become clingy and attached to any grown woman who lured him into a sexual relationship. Celeste’s own experiences in this realm – lust for a specific age that dies when the boy gets too old – makes it impossible for her to understand the real emotional nature of adolescent attachment to molesters and victimizers. She will never be emotionally attached to anyone for very long. But this passage was still very interesting because it shows, pretty well, the selection processes that so many victimizers engage in. How they know instinctively which child will be too afraid to tell, which one will be too independent, which one will be compliant and which one will resist.

Celeste eventually settles on Jack, and it was here that I could not help but compare this book with some of Peter Sotos’ works.  The initial seduction scene for me was infinitely worse than anything Peter Sotos has ever written because we see it through the eyes of a woman who simply cannot see – adamantly refuses to see – the damage she is inflicting. Say what you will about the purpose of Sotos’ writing, but even when he channels the worst pieces of shit ever to walk the earth, he never shies away from showing that those villains understand what they are doing and how very sick it all is. Not so with Celeste. She will rape these boys and completely gut their lives and think she is enabling them to drink their adolescent lives to the lees, all apologies to Tennyson. There’s something to be said about self-aware villains.

Initially it appears that Celeste picks the perfect victim in Jack because he will do anything to ensure that his relationship with Celeste does not end. But it does eventually end and it ends very badly and I cannot discuss it without spoiling the book entirely. I do, however, want to discuss the very end of the book and if I don’t give context for the scene, I can still share the words and what they show about Celeste.

Celeste, at the end, achieves a strange sort of awareness that is shallow but still better than anything I expected. She knows she is a prisoner of her very specific sexual orientation and she has no intentions of changing it or abstaining.

Most of my time is spent on the beach by the resort or at an open waterfront bar where I sit in wait for disgruntled teenagers fed up at being in a hotel room with their family – sometimes they come out at dusk for a solitary walk. I look for the telltale pallor that implies they’re on vacation. I’m not willing to take any risks on local boys.

Celeste engages in subterfuge and lies to get what she needs but is aware that time is not going to be on her side forever.

For now, my youth and looks make this 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 whom I can buy for an evening. But that won’t be for many more years; there’s lots of fun to be had between then and now.

Celeste is a person without redemption and in its own way that is so unique to read. The villain who has no intention of changing, of seeing the harm she does. She is a creature of the crotch, a completely immoral and amoral being who will literally do whatever she needs to get her fix regardless of what happens, and does not care one bit about the damage she causes and will not admit the damage she causes.

Despite the fact that this book in its way was far more upsetting to me than Sotos, I still recommend reading it. It’s graphic but graphic in a different way. It’s pornographic without being sexy – pornographic comedy, almost. Parts of the plot seem so over-the-top that comedy outweighs the horror and disgust some readers may feel. It’s earthy without being visceral, if that makes any sense. Celeste seems like a cardboard cut-out at times because she is so much a part of her sexual deviations that she does not seem real.

But she is real. The plot went in far more extreme directions than I expected but ,aside from those bits of extremity, it was disturbing how well Nutting captured the sociopath, the narcissist, the predator for whom any damage is worth the thrill because she will never notice the damage at all.

As shocking and difficult as this book was to read, it was worth it and was very much a compelling read, audacious and sickening. When I read the last paragraph in the last chapter, it was a slap in the face. It showed me that the reason Celeste seemed like a cartoon or a cut-out is because that is how everyone else appears to Celeste. No human is real in her eyes – we are all just paper dolls to the Celestes of the world, people who will chew us up and spit us out and resent even having to think of us when they are through. I found Celeste as interesting as a Ruth Rendell character, Rendell being the best portrayer of mental illness, psychopathy and other personality disorders currently writing. Celeste is horrible, disgusting, and beyond every pale but she’s damned interesting, the book moves quickly, and Nutting’s willingness to create a one-dimensional sociopath, refusing to redeem Celeste, makes this book quite different than other books that handle the same topic. Very much worth reading, I think.

3 thoughts on “Tampa by Alissa Nutting

  1. I read this not long after it came out and I was fascinated. The weird banality of it all, the way this was a mainstream publication of a pretty graphic, horrific story of sexual abuse and crazy, made it doubly strange.

  2. I need to revisit this book. I read it a year ago, also, right after it came out. I thought it was… dull. I mean, my experience reading it — I felt dulled. I agree, there’s something about it that just seemed off, and a lot of it had to do with her lack of awareness (and I’m a fan of people like Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Cooper, so a completely unlikeable character is not a problem for me.)

    Oddly enough (or maybe not, come to think of it), my library lists this book as “erotic fiction.” There is nothing erotic about this book. Similar books with male protagonists are listed as rape or incest. Something to think about.

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