Twenty-one years ago, when Nicholson Baker published his phone-sex novel, “Vox,” the advance-reader copies were wrapped in plain brown paper, marked with a big X on the front to warn about the smutty content. Alissa Nutting’s publisher has borrowed from the same playbook to promote her first novel, “Tampa”: a black cover with bold red letters announcing, “Caution: Explicit Content.”
How readers respond to this novel will largely depend on how they feel about reading blow-by-blows about sex between a 26-year-old middle-school teacher and the 14-year-old boys she craves. Some readers will praise the story as an uncompromising look at a remorseless sexual deviant. Others will dismiss it as a distasteful act of provocateurship. Either way, the controversy will presumably move some copies.
The other warning readers should have is that, by the author’s own admission, “Tampa” baldly borrows from “Lolita,” with a female instead of male predator. In fact, this novel is basically a cover of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic — like a local wedding band doing a Beatles tune.
Nutting’s narrator, Celeste Price, may be a sociopath, but she’s an undeniably pretty, buxom blonde. The wife of a good-natured but doltish cop who comes from enough family money to keep her in a red Corvette and an expensive skin-care regimen, Celeste has taken a job as an eighth-grade English teacher at Jefferson Junior High to get closer to boys “at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit.” Like Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” she must choose her victim carefully: He has to be just a little shy, unlikely to brag about coupling with the hot teacher, and not too zealously supervised at home. Like Humbert, she eventually has to submit to sex with the repulsive parent of the object of her affection in order to ensure continued access. Like Humbert, she’s eventually free of that pesky parent without having to resort to a weapon herself.
The boy she falls for is Jack Patrick, a perfectly mediocre young man with the requisite innocence. Once she ensnares him, they go at it in a variety of venues, including her Corvette. “Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life,” Celeste confides, “needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened.” Jack is madly in love; Celeste, ever the realist, considerably less so, since she “couldn’t imagine remaining attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest.”
That’s where Nutting diverges most from the Lolita script, since Humbert is, indeed, seriously infatuated with the object of his affections; his feelings about Lolita are complex, so his tenderness and longing complicate our view of his calculating sociopathy. Celeste remains mostly a “soulless pervert” whom we listen to “with a curious revulsion, the same way one might watch a cow give birth.” She remains largely unreflective about the roots of her fixation on boys. Jack isn’t a particularly well-delineated or interesting character, and the setting, despite presumably being Tampa, is so generic that the novel might as well be called “Akron.”
No one will be terribly surprised to hear that Celeste eventually gets caught. Here’s where Nutting could really update the Lolita story to examine gender bias in our reaction to statutory rape charges and how such cases play out in the public sphere, especially after Jerry Sandusky and other recent high-profile sexual abuse cases. But the novel’s coda is rushed, and unlike, say, Russell Banks in his eerie, uncompromising “The Lost Memory of Skin,” which also looks at sex involving minors, Nutting plays the consequences mostly for laughs. In prison, one of Celeste’s big worries is the lack of her “high-end facial-contouring creams.”
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with laughing about taboo subjects. In fact, the effort is to be applauded. It’s just difficult to get the tone right. For the most part, Nutting doesn’t. That’s a shame, because she’s capable of knockout writing. A middle-aged jogger has a “caffeinated ponytail, which was perched in the top center of her skull like a plume on the hat of a Napoleonic infantryman.” A student’s nervous mother has an expression “of squeezed panic, like a ferret dressed up in a miniature corset.” Such frissons of pleasure are studded throughout “Tampa” like cloves on a ham. Nutting is particularly piquant about the Ferris Bueller travails of public school. Most of the ample sex scenes, however, are not funny, titillating or particularly revealing. They provoke a reaction best captured by a word that the novel’s eighth graders often mouth: Eeewww.
Zeidner’s fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” was recently published. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.
By Alissa Nutting
Ecco. 266 pp. $25.99