“Tampa”: Scandalous sex hides a deadly serious satire
Pedophilia is the subject of Alissa Nutting’s debut novel “Tampa,” and when pedophilia is the subject, novelists have been known to hedge their bets in their choices of speakers, lest the speaker be conflated with the writer. Vladimir Nabokov famously chose an unreliable narrator—a murderer with a fancy prose style—and filled the pages of “Lolita”with literary gamesmanship elaborate enough that readers have ever since argued about what it means and how it might best be read and understood. In more recent novels, Tom Perrotta (“Little Children”) and Russell Banks (“Lost Memory of Skin”) dropped their sex offenders into ensemble dramas, where they could be studied and contextualized among other characters, at the relatively safer distance offered by third person narrators who can get inside the head of the perpetrator (in Banks’s novel, a borderline case anyway) without being the perpetrator.
Alissa Nutting, bravely, has allowed herself no such armor. The protagonist of “Tampa” is Celeste Price, a 26-year-old who has sought out a job teaching eighth grade English with the sole motivation of seducing her adolescent male students. Her story is delivered in her voice and her voice alone, in a coldly unrepentant first person, without any moralizing or authorial intervention.