Alissa Nutting's Tampa & Tomato Breakfast Tartine
Tampa is a book that will prompt questions from strangers. As I read on a bus to work, a fellow commuter leaned over: "Did you know what the book was about before you bought it?" When I forgot my copy in the seat pocket of a plane — an error I make with troubling frequency — and had to buy another, the bookstore employee raised an eyebrow at me: "Oh, I've heard all about this one."
The guarded curiosity is deserved: Tampa's narrator is a female pedophile. She is a teacher who preys on her students with disturbing brashness, and Nutting, a first-time novelist with bylines in Tin House and Bomb behind her, doesn't shy from graphic descriptions of the lead character's fantasies — and actions.
I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey (I swear), and I have to wonder whether this novel would have been published before it. But I wasn't seeking a titillating female diversion in this book; I dove into Tampa hoping for a female Bret Easton Ellis narrator, a sick and unreliable character who brings into stark relief all the twisted, perverted power trips that simmer just below the whitest smiles and Botoxed foreheads.
Instead, I found in narrator Celeste Price a one-dimensional, singularly minded predator with purely sexual motivations. Do people such as this exist? I'm thankful not to know the answer. But while the suspense of "will-she, won't-she?" drives the action quickly enough and the racy encounters with her victims keep the heat on, I couldn't find a shred of humanity or complexity in Price. She's not as cool as Ellis's narrators, nor does she capture the vices of a generation the way Patrick Bateman (of American Psycho) does. Price's character made Tampa a quick read, though one that wasn't nearly as haunting as it should have been.
What motivates Price's sexual deviancy is an obsession with youth and the physical and emotional markers of adolescence. The still-warm yolk of a just-fried egg displays a visceral newness that, to me, speaks to youth and spring (even if we're currently transitioning into fall…). Contrasted with the crustiness of day-old bread, the egg seems even more fresh.
TOMATO BREAKFAST TARTINE
- 1 large heirloom tomato
- 6-inch section of baguette or two slices of other crusty bread
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
- 1 head of garlic (optional)
- 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
- 4 thin slices Brie cheese
- 1 egg
- Salt and pepper to taste
Optional do-ahead step: Roast the head of garlic by turning an oven to 400 degrees.
Chop 1/2 inch off the top of the garlic, exposing the tops of the garlic cloves. Drizzle generously with olive oil, then wrap the head in aluminum foil and roast for 30 to 40 minutes until the top is lightly browned.
To make the tartine:
Heat an oven to 300ºF. Roughly chop the tomato and add to a saucepan with half the olive oil. Stir over medium heat, add basil, parsley, mustard, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. When the bread is heated through, remove it from the oven and slice it in half. Smear the bread with some of the cloves of roasted garlic, which should be soft enough to spread. Top the garlic bread with spoonfuls of the tomato sauce, then with slices of Brie. Return to the oven until Brie is soft and lightly golden at the edges. While the Brie is toasting, fry an egg sunnyside up. Remove bread from oven, top with egg and salt and pepper to taste.