Columns > Published on June 30th, 2014

Prose & Conversation: 'Tampa' by Alissa Nutting

Sex. It can be an awkward topic, especially when you're talking about it with someone you've never met IRL. 

Sex. With minors. Even more awkward and difficult to discuss.

So of course Richard and I just had to read and talk about Tampa, Alissa Nutting's controversial novel about a teacher who...well, read on to watch us LOL our way through a discussion of some of humanities basest needs...and why we can't decide how we feel about this book!

Richard: So today we're talking about a controversial novel, Tampa, by Alissa Nutting. It was quite a departure from her collection of stories, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. It focuses on Celeste, a teacher who likes young boys. It's a disturbing book, but one that is all too believable. It's based on the story of real life pedophile Debra Lafave. Nutting went to high school with Lafave. So, I guess a good place to start with is, overall, what was the experience like for you, Leah? I want to get into other comparisons eventually, such as Lolita and The End of Alice, but on its own, what did you think?

Leah: What did I think. That's such a loaded question, Richard!! I'll try to explain. I wanted to appreciate this book. As soon as I opened it, I knew I wouldn't like it (how can you like a book about a sexual predator, right? I never "liked" Lolita, either). But I wanted to appreciate it, to appreciate what she was doing, shedding light on such difficult subject matter. But often it left me feeling fairly empty, conflicted, and annoyed. I grew tired of Celeste, and wanted to find something redeeming in her, but in the end, I never did.

How about you?

Richard: It's a strange combination of erotic and disturbing, sad and yet so predatory. A very conflicting read for me. I have to agree 100% with you. The entire time I was reading it, I kept thinking about The End of Alice by AM Homes, which is WAY more upsetting than this book. Mostly because the boys in Homes's book are 8-10 and the boys in Tampa are 14 or so? I got much more of a "Hot for Teacher" vibe from Tampa, where Alice was really horrible and upsetting. I didn't feel that at the end anything had changed. She was just going to keep doing this, and getting away from it. You ask yourself, why did I go through this experience of reading it, if we don't seem to learn anything? Or maybe I missed it.

Leah: YES! That was exactly my issue. I kept asking, "Why am I reading this, if not to see some sort of change in her behavior?" Or to learn something about myself or the crimes...but I never quite did!

Richard: By the way, I lost my virginity at 14. Just saying.

Leah: And that was info I didn't expect to hear, but regardless, I'm guessing it wasn't with a 26-year-old teacher? 

14. Wow.

I wanted to appreciate...what she was doing, shedding light on such difficult subject matter. But often it left me feeling fairly empty, conflicted, and annoyed.

Richard: If this was a study of how pretty women can get away with murder (or sleeping with young boys) I don't think that's news. And no, I didn't lose my virginity to a teacher, to a girl my age, but just saying that a freshman in high school could be sexually active. There's the line in the book where her lawyer says, "Look at her, she's beautiful. Would you call that abuse?" I'm paraphrasing here.

I was chasing girls in 5th grade! LOL. But didn't have my first kiss until I was 14. It was a busy year, I guess. Just trying to give us a reference point from the POV of a man who was once a 14-year-old boy.

Leah: That line made me laugh, too. And that's seriously a great reference point. I was kissing boys in middle school. Nothing more, but then when I was 16 I dated a 22-year-old guy. Briefly, but it happened. It was definitely NOT abuse.

Richard: Obviously the difference is that a woman (even at 26) she has the power, the experience, it's very predatory, very manipulative, thinking how emotional, how immature a 14-year-old boy is.

Leah: Very true. I should add, here, that neither of us condones student/teacher relationships in any shape or form.

Richard: And, backing up, see, some would say that's rape, Leah! You 16 and him 22. I dated a girl who was 14-15 when I was a senior, 18 I think, and I had to stop seeing her, even though she was very smart, very developed, it was just too weird at times, she was so young.

Leah: There was no rape!! There was just a little kissing!! I was very innocent.

Ok, but back to the book and away from our (in my case nonexistent) teenage sex lives....Celeste was unapologetic about her deeds, which I found interesting. She was sociopathic, but I didn't find her believable.

Richard: Strangely enough, I found her state of mind VERY believable. She hates her husband, finds him disgusting, and any boy that showed even the first hint of puberty—muscles, hair, deep voice, she'd move on. So that was creepy, but I mean it's no different than what anybody finds attractive. We all like different things, whether it's hair or eye color, a body type or certain physical trait. I thought her mental state was actually one of the most interesting aspects of her character. What didn't you believe?

And I'm certainly not defending her here, to be clear.

Leah: I didn't have trouble believing in what she found attractive (I gaped at a high school football player earlier today, let's be honest...), but that she'd go to such great lengths to follow what she knew was illegal....and also....I don't know any girls who are SO sexually charged at all times. THAT was a point with which I struggled.

How many times did she masturbate on the opening pages? Come ON.

Richard: LOL. I mean, she has so little sexual control. I think I joked with you as I was starting this book that I was 40 pages in and she'd masturbated like a dozen times.

Leah: Exactly.

Richard: Well, I guess we need to get into some more personal stories. I don't think her desires or the amount of need inherent in her life is typical, not at all. BUT, yes, I have known women that are this sexually charged all the time. At some point it borders on nymphomania, I think. I dated a girl who was like this, like Celeste. Not only daily, but sometimes more than once. It was exciting at first, but in the end, exhausting, and ultimately destructive.

Leah: Holy shitballs.....that makes me tired just thinking about it.

Richard: LOL. I don't think having sex almost every day in your twenties is ridiculous, and she was (Celeste) so excited (literally) to start her new job around all of those young boys. So yes, she was pretty worked up.

Leah: That's a fair point, but still, I struggled to connect with her, which ultimately pulled me from the story. I felt like a lot of the shocking stuff was written with the intent to be shocking. Which isn't something I typically enjoy.

Richard: I have to ask. Did you find any of the sexual antics arousing? As an adult, she was pretty intense, I have to admit, but the focus of her attention, even though I was a 14 year old boy once, was what put a cap on it.

Leah: It's hard to read about sex (especially SO MUCH OF IT) without finding bits arousing (see what I did there with the bits??). But so much of it was a turnoff, too.

Richard: I think it really depends on the reader, right? Speaking of that same girl I dated (and a few others) the antics, the public sex, the sneaking around, the inability to control your needs and wants and desires, it all seemed pretty accurate to me. But again, that's just me.

Leah: I think the fact that I don't find pre-pubescent boys arousing didn't help me out in this regard.

Richard: I mean, I think we both knew that going into this it would be sexually charged.

Leah: Very true. It was entertaining on that level. I think. I was most entertained about when she had sex with grown men, because it was portrayed as so horrific.

Richard: Ha. Yeah, her poor husband. I actually felt kind of bad for him at the end.

Do you think a man could have written this book? I kept thinking, if I'd written this, man, I'd be divorced and in jail.

Leah: Oh, god yes. Poor guy. Here he wanted his trophy wife, and I think he really loved her, but YIKES. She cheated on him with BOYS.
I want to talk a moment about Buck (what a great name)...but I don't want to give away story....any thoughts on Buck?

For readers here, Buck is the father of Celeste's boyfriend, Jack. He's middle-aged, paunchy, and he has quite the crush on Celeste. They use Buck to explain why Celeste is at their house, in a way that's totally warped and kind of entertaining. He's a pitiful guy, Buck.

Richard: It was interesting as she's seeing Jack, and engaging in something that should be pretty disgusting to us, that the father, his advances, and what happens with him is even worse, somehow.

Leah: Yes! That's exactly right. Every time he touched her, my skin crawled. But Buck couldn't have been much older that 40...and my husband's then I had these crazy guilt issues for being disgusted by poor Buck. Like, "poor old Buck." I kept thinking that, over and over. Old. Buck. Yikes.

Richard: He was a bit of a slob, the way he'd eyeball her (being totally inappropriate) as she's his son’s "tutor."

Leah: Yeah. I guess he is pretty gross, regardless of his age.

Richard: Interesting how Nutting is able to manipulate our sympathies there, right?

Leah: For sure. And that's the a writer, she did the things she's meant to do, which makes the book solid. But still...something about it left me wanting something.

I was so conflicted with this book!!

Richard: Here's something that ran through my head throughout. Do you think a man could have written this book? Obviously, we have Lolita as comparison, but I kept thinking, if I'd written this, man, I'd be divorced and in jail. What do you think about the male vs. female predator concept as far as this book?

Leah: Yes, you would be in jail. A man couldn't have written this. It was weird timing for us to read this book, with everything going on with #YesAllWomen and the attack on women in Santa Barbara.

Richard: Exactly.

Leah: There's a double-standard here, perhaps, but there almost needs to be. I think. Again. I'm conflicted. Damn this book! Ha!

Richard: That's what I THINK Nutting may have been getting at with this book, not only that pretty women can get away with these things, playing off the power trip here, but that the public will be open to this kind of story.

Leah: Yes. So do you think she succeeded in what she set out to do? That's the question with which I kept wrestling.

Richard: I don't know if I said that well. I don't see Nutting losing a lot of friends over it, in fact, she may have gained a few new ones. If I'd written this from the POV of a 26-year-old man who seduced 14-year-old girls, I'd probably lose a lot of friends. Get called a pervert and a creep, right?

Leah: Yes. I'm pretty sure that happened to Nabokov.

Richard: I see Tampa getting a lot of positive attention. And, while I "enjoyed" the book, I didn't give it five stars (gave it four). Let me elaborate a bit on that.

Leah: I haven't rated it yet. Still contemplating.

Richard: With The End of Alice, it was so much worse, mostly the ages, but also because the female predator was talking to a male pedophile in prison, much more graphic, and much more disturbing. I asked myself MANY TIMES, "Why am I still reading?" What I got out of it, was the mindset of the girl, and the man. The addiction, the sadness, the desire to make it stop, the inability to do that, and the dark places it went. It was very upsetting, but I felt like I gained some knowledge. With Tampa, I didn't get that insight, that epiphany, right?

She likes boys, she isn't going to stop, and she will risk anything to do it.

Leah: Right. And I think to write a book like this, you really, really have to do it well. Technically well, artistically well. I'm not sure Tampa ever hit that level, at least not for me.

Richard: At the end, I thought there was SOMETHING, I can't quite articulate it, I'll have to go look at some interviews with Nutting (and I was a big fan of her writing, and did "like" this book.)

Leah: It was entertaining, it was sad, it was funny, it was sick. It was all those things, but at no single time did anything about it blow my mind.

Richard: I mean, something is wrong with me when I'm saying to myself, "Oh God, please don't let her masturbate again."

Leah: I just laughed so hard at that. Out loud and everything.

Yeah, I felt like it grew tiresome. Execution was maybe lacking, or maybe it was just not extreme enough (God, what am I saying?). But I walked away content to let it all go.

Richard: I re-read the last chapter several times, and she barely touches on the sadness, the isolation, and I think she even admits that she knows it is wrong, that she should stop, but it's really so much on the surface.

Leah: It never really delves deeper than superficial. And maybe that was my problem, in the end.

Richard: Yes, that's what left me wanting more. I didn't expect her to seek therapy, to get "cured" or change. I don't know, maybe at the end she does talk about how as she gets older what she'll have to do to lure young boys into her lair. It's sad. I don't feel, to speak in literary terms, that the conflict was resolved, nothing changed.

Which is why I'm surprised it got such a hugely powerful reaction. Maybe that's just because it IS a brave book, took courage to write it.

Leah: It definitely did. I respect Nutting, and what I think she tried to do. I certainly couldn't do it. But in the end, I'm not 100% sure she succeeded.

Richard: Or maybe she's just a pervert. Just kidding. Although I'm sure some people do wonder.

I have to wonder, as an author, WHY she chose to write this book. I mean, the Wiki touches on it a little, but I don't know. Maybe she was just fascinated by the story of LaFave, there's a little bit of that here:

It was like going under anesthesia—once I was inside it, I felt like I had to make the most of it because it was so difficult to go in and out. I ended up writing in really marathon sessions, 7-8 hours at a time..After I was done each day I had this hangover feeling— my body felt a grand fatigue even though I’d been seated the whole time. It took me a while to become verbal again after writing.

But I think as an author, as a sexual person, you do go into a project like this with your own identity. I'm not sure if it really matters if Nutting is a very sexual woman, or not at all.

When I wrote Disintegration, I had to be that guy, that killer, that degenerate, for months. It was draining. At the end, I broke down, upset, sick to my stomach, crying. So, maybe we all just need to write what we find interesting, work through it all, see what comes out the other side.

Leah: I definitely don't think it matters. You know, we don't usually talk about our own writing here (with good reason), but one thing I have to say is this: in my first book I wrote a loathsome woman. She was a punching bag, abused, terribly insecure, terribly unaware of exactly how sad she was. People were angry with me for writing such a sad and beat-down character, like I was doing something wrong by shedding light on a type of person we'd rather leave in the shadows. It irks me that people felt that way, because I do feel writers should shed light on those shadowed figures. And again, I respect that Nutting did it. I just wish, perhaps, that in the end, there had been some change. Some light at the end of Celeste's tunnel. That would have made the book so much more palatable to me.

Richard: Yeah, I give her a lot of credit for writing this. Maybe if I hadn't read The End of Alice I would have liked this book more. Homes does a better job of making the experience have more impact, I think.

So, let's wrap this up. Overall, your thoughts, rating, do you recommend it, etc.?

Leah: ACK. I knew you'd ask that.'s ok, really, but not great. Would I recommend it? Maybe...but probably not so strongly as I typically do. It left me empty, and who wants to feel like that?

Richard: I'm really on the fence with this one. I did give it four stars at Amazon/Goodreads, and it was a book I did "enjoy" reading. But in the end, it does fall short. For me, anyway. If you want this experience, I think The End of Alice by AM Homes is much more challenging, way darker, but also, ultimately more rewarding, if that's possible.

I read difficult books like this and Alice and The Girl Next Door to see what I can handle, to learn about myself as a human being, and an author. I think it's worth reading, Tampa, but it's not particularly innovative, poetic, or inspiring.

Leah: Yes. Thank goodness I write this column with you, Richard. Sometimes you read my mind and make it make sense.

Richard: That's a wrap, folks. Up to you if this conversation has gotten you excited about Tampa, but do check out her writing, she's very talented, and Tampa is a controversial book, one that a lot of people are talking about.

About the author

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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