Book review: Tampa, By Alissa Nutting

A novel that opens the door to explicit, and illicit, sexual passions in its homage to Nabokov

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The Independent Culture

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul." The opening of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the most memorable and oft quoted – a pitch-perfect expression of perversion and passion. In her homage to Nabokov's masterpiece, Alissa Nutting begins Tampa with a sentence perhaps slightly less lyrical, but just as shocking: "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."

Nutting's narrator is Celeste, 26 and uncommonly beautiful. To the outside world, their money and good looks make she and her husband, a 31-year-old cop named Ford, an enviable pair. The only problem is Ford is 17 years past his wife's "window of sexual interest". Celeste's particular sexual obsession is 14-year-old boys – skinny, slightly underdeveloped ones who can be relied upon to not boast to their friends or let slip the secret to their parents.

Celeste willingly takes one of the school's mobile classrooms out of the way of the main building; with the clunking AC unit on full blast and the door locked, she can do what she wants away from prying eyes. Before term starts she uses the "clear ink pad" between her legs to mark the desks of potential victims – a little voodoo to bring her luck. And lo and behold, in walks Jack Patrick, the answer to her prayers.

Throwing caution to the wind, Celeste quickly snares her victim, consummating the affair in the back of her red Corvette. Celeste is insatiable, her genitals "a constant drone of stimulation", humming their desires "like a never-ending soundtrack." For Jack, however, it isn't just the sex, and Celeste soon finds herself playing a dangerous game with his heart.

The subject is certainly beguiling and the content so explicit it makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a family-friendly rom-com, but Tampa isn't pure provocation, Nutting's prose is also surprisingly seductive. Both the strength and weakness of the story is its premise of pathology over psychology.

Celeste's obsession is 14-year-old boys, period, not Jack himself, and as such, she's something of a poor man's Humbert Humbert – all cunt and no conscience. But at the same time, portrayals of female sexual predators are still a rare enough find to make this a noteworthy contribution to an overlooked genre.