I felt like [the title] nicely represented the dualism of her character. With the text being so overtly sexual and boisterous on the inside, it seemed appropriate to title the book something ambiguously general—it mirrors the way Celeste represents herself as a harmless beauty with mass-appeal when she’s actually a complete monster. Alissa Nutting talks to Roxane Gay about Tampa.
Florida was epithetically “south of the South" and racial incidents that would have likely attracted national attention had they occurred in Mississippi or Alabama somehow managed to escape national scrutiny because they’d taken place in the forgotten land of sun and surf." Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove.
Just in time for a scorching Fourth of July weekend, Alissa Nutting’s debut novel Tampa arrived to much anticipation and gossip about its female pedophile protagonist, based loosely on Debra Lafave, with whom Nutting attended high school. I’d heard of the book some weeks prior, its title being of interest to a former denizen of the Big Guava, and as the reviews rolled in I combed through them eagerly. Nabokovian! Raunchy! Balls-out! Good words, and interesting blurbs, and thoughtful interviews--but few of them addressed my burning question: is it about Tampa? Why is it called that? Does this book do that thing that I love, where the setting is a character all its own?
The short answer is: no. The longer answer is: yes, but obliquely. In two hundred-odd pages only three firm locales appear--the Price home, Jefferson Middle School (and, may I note, having gone to a Jefferson Middle School in central Florida, this was a deeply unsettling name choice), and Jack Patrick’s home. Yet the psychogeographic ideal of Florida bleeds out of Celeste’s tunnel vision; in the first pages she reveals her desire for her body to appear as a “model house,” perfect in every detail, on display and welcoming to select visitors. Flies and honey, tourists and Disney World. Worship of exteriors is the foundation of Celeste’s worldview--she’s cruelly judgmental of an overweight, aging colleague, and devotes much time and effort to cultivating herself as juicy, youthful, sunny, and enticing. The reward for her success at this venture is leeway to molest students, for even when she’s found out, even when the termite-infested walls crumble, the media, the law, and fellow coworkers dismiss her actions. She is young and beautiful and instead of a rape conviction and prison time, her lawyer scores lewd and lascivious battery and four years' probation. Debra Lafave went to trial when I was a freshman at the University of South Florida; many jokes of the “lucky kid”/”hot for teacher” variety were cracked, by students I knew as well as the local rags, in line with Jack’s father’s comments in the novel about teachers he had in school. Nutting has emphasized in many interviews the ways in which we handwave sexual assault of boys and men, and once Celeste is arrested, details from Lafave's trial are used in the text--including her defense's assertion that her beauty would make her vulnerable in prison, and the idea that her relationships with Jack and Boyd are the stuff of every teenage boy's fantasy and thus no real harm was done.
Incidentally, I was reading Devil in the Grove the week before picking up Tampa. An interesting cocktail of Florida stories, dissimilar on their surfaces, one outrageously satirical fiction and one Pulitzer-winning historical nonfiction, but complementary at the base. We don’t enjoy thinking that the beautiful female teacher is violating our boy children. We don’t like to consider who picks that ripe citrus, whose backs our destination industry is built on. Too, Florida as a paragon of Girls Gone Wild-style sexuality, spring break shenanigans, and bikini bodies lends itself to corporealizing in the form of one such as Celeste. Here is a woman who has completely bought in, from moneyed husband to red convertible to endless spa treatments to keep age at bay--and who commoditizes her sexuality for her own ends and turns conventional good looks into weaponry. Celeste is the dark reflection of the male gaze, the living embodiment of concealed carry. At times she is a victim herself--of her husband, of Jack’s father--but never for a moment does the narrative allow readers to forget her essential monstrosity, nor is Celeste herself unaware. The book has drawn comparisons to Lolita, but American Psycho is another forebear in terms of ruthlessness. Celeste acknowledges her deviance, then dials it up to eleven; covers up deaths; proceeds in every aspect of her life with nothing but self-assurance and focused pursuit. In a word she is exploitative: of her own body, of the boys she molests, of the power and comfort her husband’s money and her own appearance gift her.
Gratuitous in every sense of the word, intentionally so, Tampa interrogates expectations of female sexuality and male victimhood. But along the way it also holds up a mirror to the assumptions and cultural myths of a strange state. The beach is lovely--the parks are shiny--bring your families to this paradise, where we’ve been having fun in the sun since central air was invented. No Klan activity here, no racial violence, no rape of minors, no indeed. Celeste’s story is one that could take place in any American state, but it carries all the more weight for being set in Florida, reliant on surfaces and capitalizing on beauty.