Readers who insist that characters must be “likable” for them to enjoy a story had best steer clear of Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa, a black comedy whose protagonist’s soul is as dark as a thunderstorm at midnight. But for those of a more adventuresome literary bent who are looking for a frank—and often, frankly funny—glimpse into the troubled mind of a female sexual predator, this swiftly paced novel will generate as many intriguing questions about contemporary sexual mores as it does laughs.
Inspired by the true story of Debra Lafave, a Tampa middle-school teacher charged in 2004 with “lewd and lascivious battery” for engaging in sex with a student, the novel is narrated by her fictional doppelgänger, Celeste Price, a 26-year-old teacher who’s entered the profession solely to gain access to sexual prey. She soon fixes on Jack Patrick, a 14-year-old student in her English class, where most of the tutelage involves works of literature with strong sexual themes. It doesn’t take long for them to begin a lust-fueled affair, one that unsurprisingly provokes strong emotions in Jack, while allowing Celeste to sate an appetite for sex that’s like “seafood with the shortest imaginable half-life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened.”
Take note: Nutting’s descriptions of Celeste’s frequent sexual encounters with her adolescent lover are graphic, even shocking. Equally disturbing is the darkness at the core of Celeste’s being, a depravity that allows her to watch impassively as a character dies of a heart attack or coolly assess how she’ll bring her affair with Jack to what she knows from the beginning will be its inevitable end.
Nutting has taken a considerable risk in tackling such a transgressive subject at a point in her career when she’s being discovered by most readers for the first time. But a novel can’t succeed based only on a bold premise. It’s a tribute to Nutting’s considerable talent that she adds style and wit to make this a convincing, if deeply troubling, story.