Tampa is a novel that is shocking and provocative. The cover and the opening line make that clear, just in case the reader was in any doubt.
“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.”
Twenty-six year old Celeste Price is extremely beautiful, married to a police officer called Ford who has plenty of family money to lavish on her, and is about to embark on her first teaching job. A job she has trained for simply to enable her to have access to the male students. Celeste is sexually insatiable, and her predilection is for fourteen year old boys. Fourteen because by fifteen they are already aging.
She is in a fevered state of arousal at school. She masturbates alone in her classroom. From the outside she appears to be in control of her students and ostensibly teaches them English, but all the while she is selecting an appropriate victim. He has to have disengaged parents, be quiet enough not to boast about having sex with his hot teacher, and look appropriately young. She picks Jack Patrick.
Nutting’s writing is crisp and clear. She has a good eye for detail, describing one woman as having a “caffeinated ponytail, which was perched in the top center of her skull like a plume on the hat of a Napoleonic infantryman.” but the many graphic sex scenes are written in a blankly detailed way. When Celeste is not having sex with Jack she is fantasising about him and masturbating, or maybe enduring sex with Ford. I won’t spoiler any plot developments, but we read many of these unemotional and ultimately rather dull scenes.
The characters don’t have depth – we don’t ever learn much about Jack or Ford – we see them only through Celeste’s eyes. Celeste is a vain woman with a one track mind. Nutting does not make her in any way a sympathetic character, but she is darkly humourous. A fellow teacher, Janet, serves as her counterpoint. Where Celeste is young and attractive, Janet is jaded and unattractive. The staff don’t like her, the kids don’t like her. Celeste attracts colleagues and students alike with her beauty and is able to continue her predatory behaviour, whilst Janet repels them.
This is Nutting’s point, I think. She wants us to look at how society treats beautiful women differently to plainer ones, and female paedophiles differently to male paedophiles. The title Tampa refers us to the Debra LaFave case, where LaFave, a stunning 26 year old teacher, pleaded guilty to “Lewd or Lascivious Battery” after having sex several times with a fourteen year old student. Her lawyer argued that she was too attractive to go to prison. On seeing pictures of her, many thought the boy had been lucky. (Nutting went to the same school as LaFave.) I’ve been googling, and sadly LaFave is far from alone. Sex with a child is a terrible criminal act, no matter who commits it. Consent from a child is no consent at all.
Society is often dazzled by shiny, pretty youth. This novel boldly shines a light on some big, messy contradictions.