Likable characters have never been a literary requirement for me. I'm usually happy to read about disagreeable, disturbed or even evil people, because they're often more interesting than nice ones — it's been said that the devil always has the best lines.
But I had a hard time stomaching Celeste Price, the narrator of Ohio writer Alissa Nutting's debut novel, Tampa. It's not that Celeste is a self-absorbed, colossally vain, amoral, sociopathic sexual predator of children, though she is. It's that I got bored with her.
The novel is 265 pages of unrelieved intentional outrage — an explicit tour of the inside of an obsessive sex offender's head — but all it ends up revealing is a character as shallow and opaque as a coat of the cherry-red nail polish she wears.
As for the novel's title, there's next to no reason for it. The setting is so faintly sketched the story could take place in any city's sterile suburbs. But calling it Tampa does ring the bell of the case of Debra Lafave, the teacher whose arrest in 2004 for having sex with one of her 14-year-old students at Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace led to loads of leering media coverage.
Nutting went to high school with Lafave, and she models Celeste on the ex-teacher's tabloid persona: a preeningly sexy, hard-bodied blond. (Nutting even echoes Lafave's lawyer's description of her as "too pretty for prison," although the author gives those lines to Celeste herself.)
Tampa has been compared, by its author and others, to Vladimir Nabokov's 1958 classic Lolita. It's true that each book has a pedophile (technically, a hebephile — someone sexually obsessed with adolescents on the cusp of sexual maturity) as a first-person narrator, but the resemblance ends there. Nabokov's beautifully written, complex book doesn't have a single explicit sex scene or even any coarse language; Nutting's is pretty much nothing but. Nabokov's narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a monster indeed, but a fascinating one, and his goal is seducing not just Lolita but the reader.
Celeste seems to have no past nor any interest in anything besides herself and her appetites. And she couldn't care less what the reader or anyone else thinks of her. One of her chief character traits is utter disdain for everyone except, very temporarily, her victims.
Another trait is, as you might expect, obsession with youth. She chose to become a middle-school teacher because it would give her access to the boys she craves — and her cravings are very specific. Boys who have sprouted facial hair and developed biceps revolt her. Even seeing her students' parents is "libido kryptonite" to her, because it reminds her of what the boys will look like grown up.
To attract those boys, Celeste observes a fanatical regimen of facials, Botox, toning and exercise to make herself appear younger.
She detests her "old" husband (he's 31 to her 26), whom she married because his family money and demanding job as a police officer would give her a privileged lifestyle and lots of time alone; she routinely drugs him to avoid sex.
Sex with her students is another matter — it's all she can think of, especially once she homes in on Jack Patrick, a boyishly lanky 14-year-old. With little delay, she's staking out his house, watching him from her car with binoculars in one hand and a vibrator in the other. And not long after that, she's picking him up after school for sex in her car, which is (what else?) a little red Corvette.
What turns out to be Jack's sexual initiation is very explicitly described — it covers 10 pages — and remarkably acrobatic. But, even if I weren't repelled by the nature of the relationship, I'd be distracted by Nutting's description of all this wild action taking place in the Corvette's backseat.
Quite a feat, given that Corvettes don't have backseats.
That lack of observation seems telling to me. Tampa has one focus: shocking sex — and it's not easy to be shocking these days. It doesn't bother with much of anything else, like setting, plot or character development (unless you count Celeste getting even meaner).
As a reader, I'm willing to explore despicable characters if there is some insight, or even entertainment, to be gained from the experience.
But after the shocks of the subject matter in Tampa quickly wore off, I was just left rolling my eyes. There may be an interesting book to be written about the Lafave case, but Tampa isn't it.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.