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Wrestling with demons – ‘Stephen Florida’

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Novel offers a different sort of coming-of-age story

Writing compelling fiction centered around sports is tricky business. While there’s no doubt that writers have spent centuries finding muses in the athletic realm, the truth is that translating the visceral physicality of the athlete into effective storytelling and compelling characters doesn’t always work.

But when it does, it WORKS. It is undeniable and magnetic, blending the interior complexities with the outer challenges to create narratives that breathe and bleed and believe.

That’s what Gabe Habash has given readers with “Stephen Florida” (Coffee House Press, $25), a tale of one young man’s relentless pursuit of a singular goal, a goal that has consumed him since childhood. It is a goal so all-encompassing that he’s unsure if he exists beyond it.

Stephen Florida is a collegiate wrestler, entering his senior season as part of the team at tiny Oregsburg College in Aiken, North Dakota. He is consumed by wrestling – it is his entire world. He competes at 133 pounds and is determined to win the NCAA Division IV title in that weight class.

His obsession has not come without a price, however. His personal relationships are essentially non-existent. He cares little for his classes and less for his coaches. He believes in nothing more than himself, in his own indefatigable will to win at all costs.

But Stephen finds himself letting some people in. There’s his new teammate, a freshman who competes at the weight class below him and might already be the best wrestler on the team. There’s an odd common ground between the two; their closeness even inspires some not-really kidding about their relationship having a sexual component.

And then there’s the girl Stephen met in his drawing class who captures his imagination – and she is as intrigued by him as he is by her. Their relationship begins its own weird blossoming; while they would appear to be utterly incompatible, it becomes apparent that – perhaps – they each fill the oddly-shaped hole in the other like no one else could.

When Stephen is confronted by obstacles unlike any he’s had to deal with before – physical obstacles, yes, but also mental and emotional barriers through which he may not be capable of pushing. His quest for completion proves to be a good deal more complicated than he ever anticipated – and it turns out that he might not be able to do it alone.

Habash uses the solitary path of the wrestler as the foundation for a compelling coming-of-age tale. The titular Florida is a unique personality, a darkly complex individual driven by motivations that manage to be both transparent and opaque at the same time. Everything – Stephen’s athletic goals, his relationships, his future plans, even his checkered and sadly tragic past – is reflected and refracted through the prism of his skewed synapses.

It would be easy for this kind of overwhelming interiority to cause the character to disappear into itself, with Stephen’s personality consuming its own tail in a solipsistic ourobouros. Instead, Habash wields the character’s weirdness as a weapon, using Stephen’s inherent strangeness to unlock emotional reactions rendered all the more engaging by their unexpectedness.

The lean muscularity of Habash’s prose reflects beautifully the Spartan tangle of Stephen’s being. There’s a sparseness to the proceedings, but rather than detract from the lushness of the narrative, it enhances it. There’s not a word out of place, every syllable inserted with purpose; the writing is a spot-on reflection of the man it describes. It is propulsive and powerful while also serving as some of the best literary representation of wrestling since John Irving.

At its core, “Stephen Florida” is a story of isolation. Whether it’s the geographic isolation inherent to the North Dakota location or the self-enforced isolation in which Stephen chooses to exist, the notion of loneliness drips from every page. From that isolation, idiosyncrasies arise, creating a crazy-quilt tapestry that captivates and mesmerizes.

“Stephen Florida” is less sports fiction and more fiction about sports – an undeniably fine distinction, but a significant one. The wrestling framework is vital – the story couldn’t be told without it – but the narrative isn’t ABOUT wrestling, not any more than something like Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” (a book with a depth of soul similar to this one’s) is ABOUT baseball. No, this is a book about the power of obsession and isolation, one told with a complex and vivid voice. 

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