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"Tampa" and filthy sex: The year's raunchiest book has nothing on crime noir!

The taboo female desire at the heart of "Tampa" is rare in books -- but not in classic crime fiction


Megan Abbott
August 13, 2013 3:29AM (UTC)

“Have you read it yet?”

It was a question I was asked dozens of times earlier this summer, every time I found myself in a bookstore. There was no ignoring the conspicuous cover, the stark chalkboard with the white scrawl —  "TAMPA"  — dragged across. The publisher even emblazoned its galleys with a large-font warning: “CAUTION: EXPLICIT CONTENT.”

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Far more conspicuous was the twitchy-to-hysterical media coverage: “The title … might as well have been SHOCK” (New York Observer), “The Sickest, Most Controversial Book of Summer" (Cosmo), “The Raunchiest Book of the Year” and “filthiest book I’ve ever read” (MSN) and “explicit and raw, a pornographic parody of the teacher in loco parentis” (the Guardian). “Grimy,” noted a more gimlet-eyed Kirkus, adding, “For decades, transgressive fiction has traditionally been grim, male and graphic. For those few voices asking why there aren’t more women working in this swamp, this one’s for you.” The Washington Post concluded, “Eeewww.”

“Is it really that dirty as they say?” I finally asked Sarah Weinman of Publishers Marketplace. She looked at me and smiled. “Only to people who don’t read crime novels.”

The comment lingered in my head when I finally began "Tampa," the debut novel of short-story writer Alissa Nutting ("Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls"). Inspired by a real-life case, the story centers on Celeste Price, a serial predator of teenage boys who uses her job as a middle-school teacher to initiate an affair with a 14-year-old male student, with catastrophic results. Celeste’s first-person narration depicts with ceaseless energy her predations, and her remorseless, amoral response to the havoc that ensues.

Interestingly, despite the fact that its subject is, essentially, predator sex, the shivers and shock the book has inspired seem less focused on the fact that we are, by most measures, reading salacious descriptions of acts of molestation than in the relentless and emotion-less quality of Celeste’s sexual appetite. Beginning with an opening set piece of classroom masturbation of gymnastic proportions, the novel’s perpetual focus is Celeste’s rapacious hunger. Virtually all her waking thoughts are ruled by her insatiable sexual predilection.  She can never be satisfied and her desire rules her life. Taboo female desire is far from an unheard-of topic in fiction (e.g., Mary Gaitskill, Susanna Moore), but apparently it still has the power to alarm and outrage. To feel, itself, transgressive.

There is, however, a place where such desire does not flicker in the margins but instead forms the spine of the genre — specifically, within the noir tradition in crime fiction. From the tabloid tales of James M. Cain through Jim Thompson’s deranged heroes all the way through to Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, noir is the terrain where compulsive behavior — characters who cannot stop themselves or restrain even their most taboo desires — is the subject, is in fact the expectation. Such behavior (or the longing that drives it) is the engine of the plot. It is a genre foremost focused on the elemental drives: desire, greed, hunger, rage, longing. Story then stems from the way these elementals can take over one’s life, becoming the drumbeat or the funeral beat to life. Characters are ruled by the circuit of wanting-needing-getting-wanting again. Addiction and compulsion don’t just call for action, they demand it. Often, there’s guilt over it, but sometimes, as in the darker corners of noir, the characters have surrendered to it or, like Jim Thompson’s center-less heroes, never fought it at all — they’ve embraced it. "Tampa" falls squarely in this latter tradition, with each sexual episode (this way, that way, on the desk, on the sink, in the car, alone or partnered, real and fantasy) emanating from the drive: I can’t stop myself. Why would I want to?

Perhaps the greatest signal of how comfortably "Tampa" fits within the genre is its affinity with another Florida tale of a “sexually out of control” woman, taboo-breaking and crime: "Miami Purity "(1995), by Vicki Hendricks, the novelist J. David Gonzalez recently dubbed the “most macabre mistress to ever pen Florida crime fiction.”

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For noir enthusiasts, "Miami Purity" remains the paradigmatic text of female sexual hunger. And, as with "Tampa," it is an openly declared gender reversal of classic texts. Tampa’s publisher has tirelessly promoted Celeste as a female Humbert Humbert, a comparison Nutting herself has encouraged in interviews. Likewise, Hendricks’ novel is modeled after James M. Cain’s quintessential noir novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the book that launched countless tales of unmoored men who, in sexual thrall to a femme fatale, plunge headlong into murder.

In "Miami Purity," Cain’s drifter-turned-murderer is swapped for a drifter-murderess, with the lonely wife-turned-femme fatale replaced by a duplicitous son-turned-homme fatal. Like Cain’s paradigmatic hero, Hendricks’ Sherri Parlay is burdened by a troubled past and is desperate for work. A former stripper, she wants more from her life than “puppet[ing] [her] bleached peach around in a black light” for money. Instead, a new job working for a dry cleaner and her handsome son embroils her in noir’s classic of sex-and-money triangle. As with Cain’s hero, however, material gain is never Sherri’s motivator.  Instead, her sexual hunger thrums through the novel. Her bodily desire is overwhelming — primarily desire for her lover but, on occasion, even (and infamously) extending to a fleetingly erotic encounter with an accommodating dog — and uncontrollable, as befits the classic Cain (and thus noir) tradition.  She cannot help herself.

"Tampa" too bears all the marks of Cain, from its taboo subject ("Miami Purity" also dabbles in incest) to Celeste’s dark sexual free-for-all, straight  through to the courtroom trial-media circus and a last-minute Hail Mary via a wily attorney in the novel’s final pages. That voraciousness is the spine of both novels and, reading them side by side, the similarities shimmer forth:

“I’d never be able to make it in prison … there’d be no oxygen for the affliction that burned inside me.” ("Tampa")

“Doing it was the only thing that took my mind off wanting it, and a short time later the need would only be stronger. Sexual heat was always a permanent in me, no escaping it.” ("Miami Purity")

The hunger is the very thing that gives these women life. Both have accepted it, but because this is noir, however, hunger carries a heavy price. Unable to control her drives, Sherri is doomed to the classic noir role of “sap.” Unlike "Tampa’s" heroine, Sherri’s weakness is that she is confused by love.  Celeste’s fate is far less dim. Unburdened by emotional attachment (any discreet young boy will do, as long as he lacks muscle definition), she lands on her feet. Instead, the noir chill at the novel’s ending lies with us, closing the final pages with the queasy awareness that Celeste will just keep on going.

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In this way, Celeste shares common ground with a different kind of transgressive female character: "Gone Girl’s" Amy. Both women are not so much human as a drive embodied — desire in Celeste’s case, rage in Amy’s. The result in "Tampa" is that we are able to keep a comfortable distance, to judge Celeste, even to laugh at/with her — without ever feeling complicit or emotionally entangled with her or her victims.

“Victim” is an important word here (whether we see Celeste’s boy lovers as victims or not is a complicated issue, but not so complicated in the novel). Indeed, a key difference between "Tampa" and "Miami Purity" is the choice of sexual taboo. In "Miami Purity," the sex may lead to a crime, but in "Tampa," the sex itself is criminal. But just as "Tampa" avoids deeper questions about Celeste (or the society that helps create her) by rendering her as essentially a hollow maw devoid of self-reflection, much less guilt, it also skirts the moral implications of Celeste’s predations. This deflection is less common in noir, which is, in many ways, a genre obsessed with failed morality and guilt (e.g., David Masciotra’s recent piece “Where’s the Faith in Fiction” in the Daily Beast).

Instead, "Tampa’s" graphic sex scenes expertly skirt their status as “molestation episodes.” Presumably, this is because we are bound to Celeste’s point of view and she herself does not traffic in such concerns. But, to entertain the "Lolita" analogy, consider the way Nabokov forces our awareness of Lolita’s plight, such as when we witness her physical discomfort after her deflowering at Humbert’s hands (“As she was in the act of getting back into the car, an expression of pain flitted across her face”) or when Humbert looks at her and is struck by “an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed.” We are compelled to remember, time and again, what Humbert has really done to this child. With "Tampa," however, we can put our moral outrage to one side while tittering behind our hands at the “dirty” sex scenes.  We can call it raunch because we’re not calling it molestation. And we’re not calling it molestation because Celeste is female and her student is male. As Maggie Shipstead writes in the New Republic, “'Tampa' is a product of the double standard it criticizes: with the genders reversed but the raunchy content preserved, 'Tampa' would never have been published — at least not by HarperCollins.”

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Indeed, once one folds gender back into the equation, the picture gets murkier. While we may see "Tampa" fit more snugly, if not precisely, within noir, we do have to ask: Is noir really a terrain considerably more comfortable with female transgression? After all, what does it mean that both "Tampa" and "Miami Purity" are essentially riffs on seminal male texts? Is their raunchiness acceptable because they are books less about women than about other (male) books? (Can one even imagine a gender reversal that began with a seminal female text? The only I can think of would be "Entourage," the “male” "Sex and the City," though the comparison seems to be designed as a dig at both TV enterprises.)

At heart, noir is quintessentially a male tradition. And while "Miami Purity" predates "Tampa" by many years, it’s telling that it remains, nearly 20 years since its publication, the primary “go-to” novel when one talks about uncontained female-centered desire. As it turns out, even in noir, a genre rooted in lust-gone-amok, we still rarely see female characters blazing with the kind of compulsive and single-minded sexual activity that is nearly elemental to male noir protagonists, from Jim Thompson and David Goodis to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy. Hendricks, whose other novels, including "Iguana Love" and "Cruel Poetry," continue to pulse with the same bold intensity, remains a bold outlier.

So what truly is the source of our discomfort here? What is the taboo? With both novels, it does not seem to be a queasiness over female sexual explicitness. Or even bald female sexual hunger. Instead, it’s female sexual compulsion that seems to so unnerve readers. Celeste’s every act is ruled by her sexual drive, for which she feels no shame or guilt, only a desire to repeat it. Nothing can stop her and she has no desire to stop herself.  At heart, compulsive behavior among women feels more troubling, more alien. What is acceptable or even accepted among male characters is unnervingly “Other” when attached to our female protagonist. For all the cultural stereotypes that bind women with emotion and men with logic, perhaps we fundamentally expect women to behave more rationally, to be more in control of their bodies and desires than men. Or to behave emotionally, but “for love.” They may teeter off the righteous path — they may even (à la "Gone Girl") veer widely from the path of conventional morality — but their motives are explicable: love, money, revenge. But what do we do with the woman who’s gotta have it, no matter how inappropriate her particular object of desire is? And then has to have it again and again and again, regardless of consequences? And what if there are, as in "Tampa," no consequences? How do we solve a problem like Celeste, a new breed of femme fatale?

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Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award–winning author of six novels. She received her PhD in literature from New York University and has taught literature, writing, and film at NYU, the New School, and SUNY Oswego. Her latest novel, DARE ME, is out in paperback at the end of the month. She lives in New York City.

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Alicia Nutting Books Crime Noir Editor's Picks Love And Sex Miami Purity Tampa Vicki Hendricks

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