Alissa Nutting's TAMPA gets to the point right away, and it's a disturbing point: The narrator, 26-year-old Celeste, is an eighth-grade English teacher who is sexually obsessed with 14-year-old boys. In fact, she becomes an eighth-grade teacher for that reason alone, and from the first day of school, all she thinks about is identifying a student who can fulfill her urges while not telling anyone. Celeste soon selects Jack as her target, and he proves himself a compliant participant in the extreme sex acts she craves.
This sounds horrific, and it's supposed to be. Nutting's book is an impressive, powerful, and fascinating work because the despicable character of Celeste is so skillfully rendered. The first-person narrative forces readers to experience Celeste's thoughts in all their specific and gruesome detail, and they only become more repulsive and shocking as the story unfolds.
The inevitable comparison is to LOLITA. It's been a while since I read Nabokov's novel, but my recollection is that Humbert Humbert is a pathetic character who I felt sorry for. The dirty trick of LOLITA is that I found myself sympathizing with, even rooting for, a character I considered morally objectionable. By contrast, Celeste never elicits any sympathy. From the first paragraph to the last, she is unrelentingly loathsome. She's a narcissist, she is intolerant of every flaw in the people around her, and she cares nothing for Jack's feelings except to the extent that they might pose a risk. The uncomfortable pleasure of TAMPA is being inside the mind of a character who keeps sinking to greater depths of awfulness.
For readers who can stomach the premise and the highly graphic descriptions of Celeste's actions and fantasies, I recommend TAMPA. Furthermore, all this depravity is packaged in a wonderful fuzzy hardcover. When I brought the book to the counter to buy it, the bookseller hadn't handled the copies yet, and she flinched as she touched it. I figured that was the desired effect. In a Daily Beast interview, though, Nutting said of the cover, "It's a security blanket. When the book gets too scary, you can close it and pet the cover until you're brave enough to open it and start reading again." Either way, the cover makes the book worth owning.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ In the New York Times Magazine blog, B. C. Edwards advises, Don’t Write What You Know: "In fiction, the believable is infinitely more important than the actual. No matter how grounded and real something is, if it doesn't fit in the story, it can't live there."