How readers respond to Alissa Nutting’s new novel will largely depend on how they feel about reading detailed descriptions of sex between a 26-year-old middle-school teacher and the 14-year-old boys she craves. Some readers will praise the story as an uncompromising look at a remorseless sexual deviant. Others will dismiss it as a distasteful act of provocateurship. Either way, the controversy will presumably move some copies.
The other warning readers should have is that, by the author’s own admission, Tampa baldly borrows from Lolita. It’s is basically a cover of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, like a local wedding band doing a Beatles tune.
Nutting’s narrator, Celeste Price, may be a sociopath, but she’s an undeniably pretty, buxom blonde. The wife of a good-natured but doltish cop, Celeste has taken a job as an eighth-grade English teacher to get closer to boys “at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit.” Like Humbert Humbert, she must choose her victim carefully: He has to be just a little shy, unlikely to brag and not too supervised at home. Like Humbert, she eventually has to submit to sex with a repulsive parent to ensure continued access. Like Humbert, she’s eventually free of that pesky parent without having to resort to a weapon herself.
The boy she falls for is Jack Patrick, a perfectly mediocre young man. They go at it in a variety of venues. “Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life,” Celeste confides, “needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened.” Jack is madly in love; Celeste considerably less so, since she “couldn’t imagine remaining attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest.”
That’s where Nutting diverges most from the Lolita script, since Humbert is infatuated with the object of his affections; his feelings about Lolita are complex, so his tenderness and longing complicate our view of his calculating sociopathy. Celeste remains a “soulless pervert” whom we listen to “with a curious revulsion, the same way one might watch a cow give birth.” She remains largely unreflective about her fixation on boys. Jack isn’t particularly well-delineated or interesting, and the setting is so generic that the novel might as well be called Akron.
Nutting could have updated the Lolita story to examine gender bias in our reaction to statutory rape charges and how such cases play out in the public sphere. But the novel’s coda is rushed, and Nutting plays the consequences mostly for laughs.
There’s nothing wrong with laughing about taboo subjects, but Nutting doesn’t get the tone right. That’s a shame, because she’s capable of knockout writing. A middle-aged jogger has a “caffeinated ponytail, which was perched in the top center of her skull like a plume on the hat of a Napoleonic infantryman.” A student’s nervous mother has an expression “of squeezed panic, like a ferret dressed up in a miniature corset.” Most of the ample sex scenes, however, are not funny, titillating or particularly revealing. They provoke a reaction best captured by a word favored by novel’s eighth graders: Eeewww.
Lisa Zeidner reviewed this book for The Washington Post.