If you’ve ever read a Harlequin romance novel and found yourself knee-deep in a story about a sheik and an American cowgirl, you surely realized that even when you fast forward to “the good bits,” most of it’s softcore, revolving around a love that can pick you up with well-oiled biceps and throw you onto a cloud of raptured bliss. These tales are candy-coated cupcakes compared to those of the lascivious Celeste Price. The hero of this debut novel, with her 26-year-old trophy-wife looks, has cravings for young flesh that’re relentless, predatory and wholly without remorse. As readers, we’re insiders on a thrilling trip steered by her insatiable vagina.
We meet Celeste as she’s pleasuring herself beside her sleeping husband, and you immediately wonder if the dust-jacket flaps on a book can double as blinders to keep over-the-shoulder readers away. Celeste is really in touch with what turns her on, namely the gangly limbs of boys too young to grow beards but almost old enough for learner’s permits. She’s a teacher for a reason, and now she’s ready for her first day at school in Florida, “finally set up with a job that would allow me to go back to eighth grade permanently.”
Soon Celeste focuses on Jack Patrick, a quiet jock whose 14-year-old body has her in a persistent lustful frenzy. He “surely smelled upon me the dank catalyst of experience that could take him from theory to practice.” She spies on him outside his home, in her car with an electric device humming loud enough to make the Energizer Bunny blush. She stalks him in the lunchroom, unbuttons buttons before walking past him, and taunts him enough to evoke thoughts of Sting’s legendary anthem of classroom boners: “Don’t stand so close to me!”
Nutting has called Tampa a reimagining of Lolita based on a schoolteacher ex-classmate of hers who had an affair with a 14-year-old. Like Nabokov’s book, Nutting’s is persistently funny, especially the hulk of problems that is Celeste’s coworker Janet. But does Nutting get away with it? In Lolita, Humbert’s depictions of desire involved much less detail of sex acts than post-coital reverence, but Humbert was a professor, not a junior-high school teacher. Celeste has her own language, and she likes to give details.
Nutting’s first book was the 2011 Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, an uncannily original collection of stories opening with “Dinner,” about a pot of people being boiled alive for deranged foodies. (Another story, “Ant Colony,” follows a vain model who volunteers to let a dentist drill holes in her bones to harbor an ant colony.) These stories address the dark mutations of human desire in their sweet and uniquely original melodramas—and they happen to be very accessible. Tampa is the same. Whether with curiosity, amazement, or disgust, it’s a book people will be talking about.