June 2013

Josh Zajdman


Tampa by Alissa Nutting

In her debut novel Tampa, Alissa Nutting has done readers a great service by introducing them to Celeste Price. Well, perhaps a caveat is necessary. Certain types of readers (the discerning, the broad, those looking for a novel thrill) will benefit from meeting Celeste. She is a character so brilliantly rendered and lacking any semblance of remorse, humanity, selflessness, or any of the qualities that make for a sympathetic character. Yet it's the absence of these that make her such a compelling one. Furthermore, it's a testament to Nutting's deft skill that Celeste ends up being one of the most interesting people to walk across pages in recent memory, never deviating into arch or even lurid characterization. For a novel centered on transgression, deviance, and sex, that's a feat. This outlying merit applies to the novel itself. This isn't some Lifetime movie, pumped up with dirty bits or salty language. Instead, Tampa is a densely packed literary landmine, just begging to be stepped on. Nutting has undertaken the uglier facets of human behavior in an attempt to force readers to look at themselves, and realize just how simple we really are. Our motivations may be complex, but, at the end of the day, it's a matter of release. Celeste's, first, and last, really.

When introduced, Celeste has "spent the night before [her] first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation." Next to her, asleep lies her husband, Ford. Together, they "are the perfect couple based solely on looks." Celeste is the self-proclaimed "zookeeper" to Ford's "tranquilized bear." As with all stories of infidelity, there is much more brimming beneath the surface.

My real problem with Ford is actually his age. Ford, like the husbands of most women who marry for money, is far too old. Since I'm twenty-six myself, it's true that he and I are close peers. But thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.

With that the first page of the novel ends, readers quickly calculates the ideal age, drops their jaws, and quickly turn to the next page. The honest readers, that is. Nutting's writing is wonderfully tactile creating a swampy miasma of sex, sweat, desperation, and fury which washes over us, and becomes only slightly bearable, as it does for the novel's characters, when the air-conditioning is turned on. When Celeste is exhausted and cooling down, we get the brief opportunity to shed the layers of grime, which have been quietly, and stickily accumulating. These are just a few examples of Nutting's recurring and increasingly abrasive descriptive power.

When aroused:

Soon I felt so dizzy that I had to kneel down on the shower floor. I clumsily extracted the showerhead from its holder and guided it between my legs, the same way one would put on an oxygen mask that dropped from the plane's ceiling due to an ominous change in cabin pressure, feeling nothing but a frightened hope for survival.

Shortly afterward, Celeste is triggered by memories of a former student, while out to dinner with her husband. Finding the student's name on a card, she "rips it out on isolation" and excuses herself to the restroom. Upon returning, Celeste sees Ford "drinking yet another blue cocktail overflowing with flora garnish. He'd called from a distance, 'They call this drink a Tall Blue Balls!' I'd given him an appreciative smile, as if to say, How appropriate; you are foul to me and I just wallpapered my cervix with the name of a teenage boy." He's just one. There are others.

The teenage boy who changes everything is Jack Patrick. For Celeste, "he was at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit him: undeniably male but not man... the way his frame shunned both fat and muscle. It had not yet been wrestled into a fixed shape." That's the opening of chapter two. If you haven't consented (a tricky term given this book's subject matter) at this point, you're locked in. Things get darker, dirtier, and more distressing with every flip of the page. It's worth pointing out that these become increasingly harried; any more on Jack Patrick would be a grave spoilage. The strength and brute power of Tampa's whirlwind 272 pages comes not just from Nutting's style but also its juxtaposition with noiresque trappings. It's James M. Cain, but with cell phones and Corvettes. Celeste's cynicism and sardonic, gimlet view make her speak fluent, albeit calcified, Hammetian. She's gifted with the body and destructive properties of the femme fatale. These are Nutting's antecedents, and not Nabokov, regardless of the temptation to compare.

Tampa's strength comes from the strong, irrevocably female perspective, which keeps the blood pumping in its heart of darkness. As a result, interestingly, easily stereotyped issues like beauty (and using it as currency), love, sexual relations, family, and so forth are turned on their head. A favorite example of this is Celeste's almost fond memory of college defecation and its ties to beauty.

Shitting is good this way as well. Occasionally in college, my roommate would enter the bathroom right after I'd done some business and scream out at the lingering smell with a sense of shock that left me deeply gratified... I had a face that denied excretion.

Celeste is the desirous, eternally horny, speed-loving, cynical, dismissive, greedy, shrewd role that the man usually plays in these circumstances. That's the thing. Tampa can seem familiar on a bare-bones level, but Nutting is doing something that yields plenty of twists and turns. Moreover, we readers are pressed against the glass and forced to consider our own desires, as we are exposed to Celeste's. Another caveat: the book is covered in something approximate to velvet. As you flip through each page, increasingly horrified, you find that your hands are beginning to slip. When you consider that it may be responsive, but not in the way you at first assumed, the book becomes even more troubling.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting
ISBN: 978-0062280541
272 pages