Tampa: A Review of Alissa Nutting’s First Novel

-by Heather Murphy

It doesn’t seem quite right to start out with a negative remark, but it would almost be wrong to make a declaration of enjoyment. I didn’t enjoy the book, but not because the writing was lacking, it wasn’t–it was crisp and fast flowing as a cold stream, but it didn’t offer sustenance, and it kept me in a state that could only be compared with the way you’re left feeling after you haven’t had access to healthy food for several days on end.

The twenty-something female narrator presents as a selfish, diabolically narcissistic sexual predator, more than intent on finding and feasting upon her favored prey: fourteen year old boys. Luckily, she is a teacher and has easy access, so panic and desperation are held at bay, or surely she would do something rash.

Sometimes, when an actor is playing a sinister role, they will be so proficient in their craft as to make you despise them. Nutting certainly has talent as a writer–she pulled that one off; I wanted Celeste Price, bitch-in-heat-extraordinaire, dead as a doornail. To detest a protagonist with such zest is rare for me, but this one was as unsympathetic as they come.

I found myself relating to the author instead, then. It couldn’t be helped. The woman can seamlessly and tirelessly serve up gourmet similes so tasty, they melted in your mouth, metaphors so rich in texture, my book-lover tongue savored each morsel. As appealing as the simplistic style may have been, decorated as it was with a treasure trove of good writing, I was going hungry.

I wanted more.

I wandered off, paths with dead ends. Where were the boys? What were they thinking? The filtered insights of a pathological pedophile weren’t evasive, they were empty. Casting around, again, I escaped to the hypothetical mindset of the author. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she worried about what they were thinking?

The history of the boys, and of Celeste Price herself, was nonexistent. They came from the ether, and in the flesh they were manipulated to do things that would have set their minds whirring to levels audible to the reader. But yet, I heard nothing from them. Point of view was relegated strictly to the stalking animal body of Celeste Price and her sociopathic mind.

Hunger pangs tinged with nausea.

I don’t like to not finish a book. I rarely do this, because I do choose with some discretion, say, a friend recommended it, an admirable author gave it a favorable review, the credentials of the author are impressive, et al. Truth be told, I didn’t feel compelled to finish this book, beyond hopes for a fruitful verdict.

I found my mood souring. My warning speeches to my sons about predators rekindled with new fervor, and contained all the new, freshly gleaned details of possible psychological traps. I stared off into space between chapters and cringed inwardly at the inherent weakness of the other sex. The victims of Celeste Price never stood a chance. She was an ocean closing over their heads.

I grew cranky reading the elaborate and constant minutia of sweaty masturbation rituals, tired of being able to picture her fumbling with a vibrator, and tired of being able to almost hear her muscled thighs peel from the leather seats of her trophy wife car. I needed her to go inward, she could not. She bumped up against plastic when she made feeble attempts.

That brings us to ethos and pathos. It’s all the former and none of the latter. This is because the aberrant narrator–whom, by Ms. Nutting’s genius, stays true to her personality disorder—is devoid of the philosophical meanderings of a sane person. She does not recall past events unless they involved contact with a male minor who met prey specifications. She does not reflect, analyze, ruminate, or meditate on anything but an orgasm. And you don’t feel a bit sorry for her. In fact, you’d like to meet her in a dark alley and re-arrange her too-pretty face.

This isn’t a book to enjoy, though you should admire the style of writing, the consistency of the elements, and the flow which has been generated to keep it moving so fast there wasn’t really time to throw it against the wall.