Gabe Habash - Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it's a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark

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Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida, Coffee House Press, 2017.

Foxcatcher meets The Art of Fielding, Stephen Florida follows a college wrestler in his senior season, when every practice, every match, is a step closer to greatness and a step further from sanity. Profane, manic, and tipping into the uncanny, it's a story of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark.

"In Stephen Florida, Gabe Habash has created a coming-of-age story with its own, often explosive, rhythm and velocity. Habash has a canny sense of how young men speak and behave, and in Stephen, he's created a singular character: funny, ambitious, affecting, but also deeply troubled, vulnerable, and compellingly strange. This is a shape-shifter of a book, both a dark ode to the mysteries and landscapes of the American West and a complex and convincing character study." Hanya Yanagihara

A college wrestler is driven to win, to the detriment of his mental health.
The captivating narrator of Habash’s debut novel is a sinewy senior at a small North Dakota college on a last-ditch effort to win the Division IV championship in his weight class. To do so, he takes easy-A classes (“Drawing II, Meteorology I, Basic News Writing, and What Is Nothing?”) and works out like a fiend (“I’m skin and gristle and little water”). But it’s clear early on that something is off. He mentions his childhood as an orphan only to deny its impact, and his macho rhetoric takes bizarre turns: “It’s my job to make other people upset and sad,” “Everything outside of wrestling is devoid of mystery and deep faith,” “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” In short, Stephen is a classic unreliable narrator, which makes him as fascinating to experience—Habash plainly glories in his hero’s digressions and non sequiturs—as he is difficult to root for. He’s a bully with opponents, alienating with his teammates, and clumsy in a budding relationship. Once a meniscus tear threatens to keep him out of competition, his angry, obsessive nature (“I gargle discontent”) drives him to investigate dark rumors about coaches and teachers. That’s a canny provocation to the reader: recognize he’s unhinged or respect his sense of justice? Either way, Habash writes about the raw physicality of wrestling better than anybody this side of John Irving (“I push his far shoulder like I’m crowbarring open Tut’s tomb or I’m Lazarus moving aside the rock for the big reunion”), and though the story is overlong given Stephen’s straightforward trajectory, the novel’s grim, intense mood is admirably sustained. For this well-intentioned but troubled man, every victory is a pyrrhic one.
A lively, occasionally harrowing journey into obsession.  - Kirkus Reviews

PW reviews editor Habash’s finely rendered, dark, and funny debut novel follows Steven Forster (known as Stephen Florida, due to an enduring clerical error) as he wrestles for Oregsburg College in Aiken, North Dakota. A senior, it’s his last season to win the championship, a goal on which he’s obsessively staked everything. But his turbulent friendship with a talented younger teammate, his budding romance with an aspiring gallery director, his lingering grief over his parents’ death, a hostile coach, and a possibly homicidal professor all threaten to distract and derail him. He must also face his demons: a lack of direction, a deep intolerance for boredom, a reckless despair that verges into suicidal ideation, and a loneliness so vast it becomes a potent feature of the dramatic landscape. The student-athlete’s world comes alive with crisp, unflinching prose: “Suicide sprints, jump rope, rope climbing, five times, arms only... I brush the vomit out of my teeth and get my backpack.” Habash also balances his protagonist’s most harrowing episodes and questionable behavior with genuine humor. There are riffs on everything from death to jazz to God to liberal arts degrees. A striking, original, and coarsely poetic portrayal of a young man’s athletic and emotional quest.  - Publishers Weekly

Who is Stephen Florida? It's a little hard to say. He's an orphan who maybe hasn't yet come to terms with the death of his parents in a car crash. He's an obsessive with poor impulse control. He's possibly the best college wrestler in the state of North Dakota. He's an unapologetic megalomaniac. Or maybe he's not really any of these things: "There is no real Stephen Florida," he says. "I am only a giant collection of gas and light and will."
It's difficult to know when to trust Stephen, the title character of Gabe Habash's powerhouse debut novel — he's either given to compulsive lies, or his grip on reality is considerably less strong than he himself is. He's hard to know, but he's also one of the most unforgettable characters in recent American fiction.
Habash's novel follows Stephen's senior year at a small college in North Dakota. In his first three years on the school's wrestling team, he's distinguished himself, but he's fallen short of his ultimate goal: winning the Division IV NCAA championship in his weight class. Stephen is not the type to take solace in his teammates' successes, or to accept anything less than outright victory. "Anyone who tells you wrestling is a team sport is telling you a lie," he says. "Anyone who tells you you tried your best after you lose is telling you a lie."
The beginning of his final season goes well, but catastrophe soon strikes — he tears a meniscus in his knee during a match, threatening his chances at the championship he covets more than anything. A hardcore ascetic by nature, he retreats into himself even further after the injury, alienating his best friend and his sort-of-girlfriend, who has moved miles away.
He comes close to the edge. He comes close to several edges. But his determination never wanes; if the injury's going to try to stand in the way of his goal, it's in for a fight: "Up in an armpit of the United States, where no one can see me, I change shapes and become something slobbering and furious in order to get what I want." He's both the unstoppable force and the immovable object; he's "skin and gristle and little water, Stephen Florida without end Amen."
It's hard to pull off a novel with an unreliable narrator, and they don't come much more unreliable than Stephen. But Habash manages to make his protagonist both charismatic and repelling, frequently on the same page, and the result is one of the most fascinating characters to come along in quite a while. He balances on the edge of sanity and of self-awareness throughout the novel: "Craziness is not having anything to put your behavior into. Craziness is when your behavior drops off a ledge into a canyon. I'm putting mine toward a service. I'm winning. How can I be going crazy if I'm winning?" There are shades of Frederick Exley's 1968 novel A Fan's Notes in Stephen Florida, but Stephen's a paranoid obsessive all his own; he's self-disciplined and self-sabotaging in equal measure.
Habash is also adept at portraying the landscape of the North Dakota and the world of college wrestling in a way that draws in readers unfamiliar with either. Even if all you know about wrestling comes from the likes of "Macho Man" Randy Savage (oh, yeah!), it's hard not to be taken in when Stephen waxes philosophical about the sport. "Wrestling is a series of momentary ejaculations, passions that originate and evolve based on their relationship to another's passions," Stephen explains. "Wrestling is, at its core, one passion set against another passion for the purpose of determining which is stronger." Stephen's erudition — he speaks with a vocabulary that's not typical for a college kid — is part of what makes him such a memorable character; he's a possible genius who underachieves in every way except wrestling.
In the end, it's difficult not to root for Stephen, despite his impulsiveness and stubborn single-mindedness. And it's almost impossible not to admire Habash's starkly beautiful and moving novel. Stephen Florida is brash and audacious; it's not just one of the best novels of the year, it's one of the best sports books to come along in quite a while. It's an accomplishment that's made all the more stunning by Habash's status as a debut novelist: It's his first time on the mat, and he puts on a clinic.
- Michael Schaub

Writers like to sound clever from the start, so it’s rather endearing that US author Gabe Habash has chosen an epigraph from an unlikely source to introduce his debut novel: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former governor turned Trump antagonist sums up the mood of Stephen Florida in five simple words: “The mind is the limit.”
It’s an appropriate line given the sheer intensity of the eponymous character’s own mind. An orphan who is in college on a wrestling scholarship, Stephen is focused solely on winning the Kenosha Wrestling Championship, an event that looms for him with the same inevitability that the Oscars must loom for Meryl Streep every February. He has the discipline of a Buddhist monk, carefully monitoring his food, his bowel movements and his personal hygiene. On the rare occasions when he finds himself in a romantic clinch, whether it’s with his girlfriend Mary Beth or 53-year-old cleaner Masha, he refuses to climax for fear of losing his competitive edge.           
This self-control is replicated in the narrative tone, which veers between hypnotic and suffocating. There are some novels where, after a chapter or two, one feels exhausted at the prospect of what lies ahead, and 50 pages into Stephen Florida I felt as though I was being pinned to a wall – or rather a mat – by a teenage boy intent on telling me every detail of his exercise routine, about the importance of warm-ups, protein and sleep and the reason he keeps his hair in a military buzz cut. Eventually, though, I gave in, seduced by his unrelenting determination, despite the fact that he was holding me down and twisting my arm into places nature did not want it to go.
The novel takes a turn halfway through, when Stephen suffers an injury that threatens his ambitions. When he finds himself in hospital, it seems as if his entire world is about to end. It’s only when his friend Linus leaves a note for him – “it is only a knee tear. You will be back in no time and I know you will keep winning” – that we realise how relatively minor his injury is and that the darkness into which he has been thrust is not only unnecessary but disturbing.
Although the novel is so single-minded in its descriptions of weight classes, tactics and sporting statistics, it is not purely about, or for, wrestlers. It’s about obsession and how the things that are missing from our lives can force us to focus on a single goal to the exclusion of all other interests or pleasures; where winning is all that matters, despite the inescapable knowledge that once you’ve proved you’re the best, what else is there to do? If, as Scott Fitzgerald said, there are no second acts in American lives, this is doubly true for sportspeople, for whom it is all over in an instant.
If obsession is one of the twin pillars holding up Stephen Florida, loneliness is the other. Although he has a sort-of friend in Linus and a sort-of girlfriend in Mary Beth, Stephen is an isolated creature. When another youth, one of only 16 black students on a campus of 1,100, offers the hand of friendship and a suggestion that they “hang out sometime”, he is coldly rebuffed – “and he understands, I think, and when he says, ‘See you around,’ I get that he doesn’t mean it. His tone shuts the door.” Loneliness has met loneliness, segregation has encountered segregation, and while the other young man longs to conquer his isolation, Stephen sees only power in it.
This is not a novel that everyone will love. Its brutal intensity makes it a difficult read at times, but there’s no denying how deeply Stephen’s voice sinks into the mind. He’s a frightening construct but it’s his peculiarity and distinctiveness that draw the reader to him, much as readers have been drawn to Ignatius J Reilly or even Holden Caulfield over the years.
John Irving, who frequently features wrestlers in his novels and has written about his own experiences of the sport in The Imaginary Girlfriend, has said: “Writing is hard and I learned how to work hard from wrestling, not English courses.” I suspect Habash would spin that quote the opposite way. His writing is powerful and magnetic, with a quality that suggests it has been worked over to strip it bare of ornamentation but still leave it with a rare beauty that the greatest sportspeople, in a ring, on a court or on a pitch, can achieve. - John Boyne

“People are bad at giving up,” a man tells the title character late in “Stephen Florida,” Gabe Habash’s debut novel. “A lot of the time they don’t do it early enough.” He’s commenting on life in the oil fields of North Dakota, where Stephen is considering a job after college, but he might as well be describing Stephen’s current situation: He’s a wrestler at Oregsburg College in the late 1970s, and it’s his senior year, which means it’s his last chance to win a collegiate championship. Habash’s novel follows Stephen through his event-filled final season and traces his complex inner turmoil as he pursues his unbending ambition to dominate the competition. By the time the above statement is made to Stephen, he’s veered far away from mere determination and ended up near monomania, and his will to win has become enmeshed in bitter jealousy, calculated malice and philosophical scrutiny. The sport itself, in other words, is beside the point, as are the actual benefits of succeeding. Stephen’s drive has brought him to the brink, but is it too late for him to give up?
“Stephen Florida” is not some Hollywood sports story. First, Stephen’s drive is reinforced or curated not by his coaches but by himself, and second, the novel doesn’t present his grandiose ambitions and unrepentant will as heroic or necessary or even good. Rather, it tries to understand the kind of person who would be attracted to such a vocation in the first place. Do a person’s goals determine the means to achieve them? Or can a sport create these dreams through repetitive and torturous training?
What kind of ambitions am I talking about? Winning, sure, but it’s deeper than that. Here’s Stephen: “You know how when you live in a room for a long time and you make the room smell like you? That’s what I’m doing with the world.” Stephen does not want merely to win, he wants to be unavoidably present to the people around him. “I am not stupid, I am not delusional,” he says at another point. “I’m aware of the smallness of the Division IV wrestling record book. But despite its smallness, it is still permanent, and I have in my hand the pen to sign my name into it. … After I’m dead, from time to time, maybe someone will scan through the past results and come across my name.” For all its grandiosity, Stephen’s hope amounts to very little, yet he still clings to it with everything he’s got.
Habash has created a fascinating protagonist in Stephen, a hard-driven athlete with a convincingly thoughtful mind — though an erratic one, too. Just when you think you’ve got Stephen pegged, he surprises you with a meditation on Mary Beth, his brief love interest, or on Linus, a fellow wrestler with whom he has a strange and strained relationship. But most important, I think, is the way Habash understands the limits of his subject matter. He does not try to extrapolate Stephen’s narrative into some all-encompassing portrayal of ambition and hubris, but remains firmly in the realm of this particular boy in this particular moment.
The same guy who warns Stephen about the non-quitters in the oil fields adds this, which speaks to Habash’s understanding of just where Stephen’s wrestling determination fits in the context of the male-dominated realm of competition: “People end up in a new situation, they don’t act like themselves. People are animals. Men, really, is who I mean.” It’s a fitting epigraph for Habash’s novel and its aims. -
Intimacy and violence intersect throughout the novel. Sparring with a teammate, Stephen describes the “outgrown nubby flaps of skin all down his [teammate’s] spine,” a condition that disgusts opponents but attracts women in the library. The wrestlers are deeply familiar with each other’s bodies, yet reject the implications of getting so close. This is especially true for Stephen and his only friend on the team, a freshman named Linus. Their teammates make homophobic jokes at their expense because, in Stephen’s mind, they’re “the best two wrestlers on the team.” In the minds of the wrestlers, men can only relate as opponents or lovers, in approved or shameful terms.
The intimate friendship shared by Linus and Stephen does not fit within this simple binary. Though they are as close as lovers—and thus assumed to be gay—their connection is not erotic. Linus’s naivety, humility, and superior skills offset Stephen’s megalomania and ambition: “I am more enthusiasm than talent, so what happens if my enthusiasm is taken away?” Stephen wonders, in a rare moment of vulnerability. Though Stephen tries to assume a paternal role, Linus does the caretaking, buying Stephen sandwiches when he’s hurt and gifting him sticks of deodorant.
Romantically, Stephen proves rather inept, subverting the image of the athlete who attracts women easily. He briefly dates Mary Beth, a funny, intelligent artist who overlooks his asceticism and social incompetence. His affection for her is intense, awkward—not surprising for a college courtship—and his feelings, though genuine, seem compromised by the hypercompetitive logic of wrestling: “There have been ten billion women in the world, stretching, speaking, itching, laughing, eating, burping, and none of them have made the impression Mary Beth has made.” To Stephen, there is no better compliment than to be ranked number one. 
Stephen’s mindset has its roots in the myth of the self-made man, in a culture that often excuses cruelty toward others as a necessary component of male genius. This sort of selfishness might drive one toward what are historically considered masculine aims, like honor or power. However, in the figure of Stephen, whose wrestling career is destined to be forgotten, Habash reveals the futility of athletic greatness, a goal that all but requires desensitization. “If you just buy into the craziness, you’re a lot better off,” Stephen says early in the book, speaking to wrestling, but also to the unobtainable ideals of manliness that help push him beyond his limits.
Stephen’s most prominent act of “buying in” is his decision to ignore how wrestling has destroyed his body. The novel rarely dwells on the potential consequences of wrestling through injury; rather, Habash glorifies certain aspects of Stephen’s sacrifice. This is not a shortcoming of the book, but an unfortunate byproduct of writing about athletes, who, throughout their careers, are often confronted with the kind of choice Achilles faced: self-annihilating glory or longevity? Even knowing what Stephen has endured, it’s easy for readers to root for his return to the mat—who would ever cheer for Achilles to choose a long, happy life? Stephen’s comeback cleverly forces readers to question their complicity as sports fans. Even readers keenly aware of how dangerous Stephen’s pursuit of the championship is might want him to press on, if only so that his suffering is “worth it” in the end.
Impressively, Habash traces Stephen’s increasing derangement without resorting to clichés. The novel is both funny and authentically creepy, and even as his mental health and relationships deteriorate, Stephen remains consistently surprising, accessible, and engaging. Stephen Florida’s grim portrait of ambition led astray captures how competitiveness and masculinity can unravel those who blindly follow its codes. In Habash’s world, to man up is to break down. The growing number of stories about real-life athletes suffering similar crises has made that idea especially—and regrettably—timely. -

When Gabe Habash set out to write his debut novel, Stephen Florida, he knew one thing for certain: he wanted to write about what he didn’t know.
It’s an unusual decision for a first-time novelist—all the more so considering that the resulting book, an immersive trip through the mind of a monomaniacal “Division IV” college wrestler, is written in the confident manner of authors who mask their all-too-familiar secrets. But Habash says there’s no other way he could have made it through the years-long process of writing the book. “If I’m writing about somebody who has a lot of the same things with me in my life, I will just get tired of writing about it,” he tells Paste by phone. “I go into writing as a way of finding things out, because I don’t always know where it’s going.”
Stephen Florida follows the senior-year season of its titular character, a wrestler at the fictional Oregsburg College in North Dakota. Wrestling demands an uncommon level of physical and mental control from its participants, and opportunities to compete beyond college—barring the Olympics—are basically nil. Habash was drawn to both elements of the sport, and he wanted to see if he could create a controlled narrative to match the dedication of a wrestler facing the end of his career. “I just really like the idea of someone pursuing something very simple and singular,” the Columbus, Ohio-born writer says.
Stephen, Habash’s beguiling protagonist, certainly fits the bill.
Wrestling’s appeal to Stephen lays in its lack of abstraction. It’s scored in a point-based system, but the truest measure of victory lies in one’s ability to force one’s opponent into submission. Stephen is so intently focused on this that he shuns even the meager socialization offered by his teammates. He’s blown three prior chances at winning the championship, so he stakes everything on his final chance at getting his name permanently entered into the Division IV wrestling record book. “After I’m dead,” he reflects, “from time to time, maybe someone will scan through the past results and come across my name.”
But Stephen struggles to quiet the chatter of his mind, to empty himself of everything but his desire to win. Memories of his deceased parents and grandmother jostle for his attention amid a burgeoning romance with another wrestler, Stephen’s only teammate whose dedication—and skill—resembles his own.
Stephen’s only truly at peace while he’s wrestling. The moments when he is on the mat are the book’s best, delivering a near-perfect combination of lyricism and clinical detachment:
He picks bottom. And the reality is that he’s a good wrestler, good enough that I can’t pin him, but not as good as I am, and this becomes a fact. Wrestling is unprejudiced and open minded, and it’s impossible to argue with. It always tells the truth, and that’s why so many men love it. […] Men made of mesh, men made of tinsel, paper, dust. I was one for the seasons before this one. I was an infant with no good pictures, with an asymmetrical face, but now I am squatting on Poynter’s body, turning off his water, riding him until the end of the match.
Habash says he studied “countless” wrestling YouTube videos and read coaching guides and other books to grasp the technical vocabulary of the sport, and a family friend who had competitively wrestled read a draft to check it for accuracy. He also attended a handful of meets, struggling to reconcile his outsider’s view with that of someone actually in the match.
What allowed him to combine the two was Stephen’s strange voice, full of twists, turns and evasions. The novel’s structure is fairly pedestrian, beginning shortly after the beginning of Stephen’s senior season and ending in the moments after the season’s final match. Habash made that choice, he says, to free himself up to explore the side-paths of Stephen’s restless mind. “The book has a lot of sort of side-turns and weird asides,” Habash says, “but the structure of the book is very straightforward. And that allows me to do these more out there experiments with the story, because I was working in a very contained framework.”
The idea of operating within a framework is something Habash shares with his protagonist. “It’s why Stephen adheres so passionately to wrestling,” Habash says. “He views it as this circumscribed area where he can impose his will and control on things. Whereas so many other things in his life don’t play out the way he would like them to. I think he turns to wrestling as an outlet for a place where he can actually impose his system of control over it.”
As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, though, Stephen’s ever-tenuous command of his body and his psyche begins to slip. In a gorgeous and terrifying aside, he leaves campus to visit a “man camp”—a temporary home for roughnecks and drillers, members of North Dakota’s shale oil boom—and it offers a possible glimpse to his future beyond the wrestling mat. Yet even here there is no escaping his solitude; the men he meets, burly “alphas” all, are dwarfed by the vast landscape. After a disturbing interaction with one driller, Stephen steps outside into the cold winter air: “In the dark, straight past the gravel road and the huge plot of grass under snow, is a potato field, and standing in the middle of it is a giant.”
The narrative quickly moves past this moment—the championship is approaching, after all—but the giant continues to loom over Stephen in one form or another. By the time the championship meet in Kenosha, Wisconsin arrives, he reaches an exalted state, clad in an extravagant fur jacket. But just before the final match, something strange happens. Stephen looks around the gymnasium’s rafters for “a black creature, an animal waiting to descend.”
“But there is nothing. It has stopped following me. The truth is that enormous. There is either no menace left in Kenosha or it is coming from me, it’s coming from my mouth.
The novel’s end ultimately delivers little in the way of resolution, either for the reader or for Stephen himself. That’s how Habash wanted it.
“I definitely wanted frustration to be something that the reader senses in the book, in terms of not getting answers to a lot of questions that maybe in a more conventional story you would hope to get an answer to,” he says. “I just don’t think life works out that way…I think profound frustration is a necessary and inextricable part of that period of life for a lot of people.” - Lucas Iberico Lozada

Gabe Habash’s confident debut, Stephen Florida, explores the single-minded intensity behind the pursuit of your goals. The result is a fast-paced novel about sacrifice and dedication, as it follows college senior and wrestling national championship hopeful, Stephen Florida, in his attempt to win the 133lb weight class.
Stephen Florida is a talented wrestler at an average college, but he is exceptional in his devotion to his sport. Willing to sacrifice beyond reasonable measure, Stephen makes his commitment to wrestling a credo. The novel reads like a manifesto, leading readers into the mind of a character filled with pain (“What will make my thoughts less ugly while I wait for my turn? I live in these little chambers of dissatisfaction like a frustrated prince. I’m constantly reminded that I’m not owed anything.”), humor (“I guess because sailboating and horse jumping, kite contests, golf, those aren’t sports. Anything that needs an object or water or an animal is not a sport. Wrestling is genuine and true and real.”), and extraordinary focus (“But I don’t need to be old to know that to look back and realize you didn’t push yourself for something you loved is the greatest regret you can have.”).
This voice-driven, first-person novel offers enormous access to Stephen’s interior. We are side by side with Stephen as he struggles to maintain the grueling pace he’s set for himself. This intensity is the driving force behind all of Stephen’s actions and feelings. There is only one thing for Stephen, and that one thing is winning. “The two best reasons to do anything are: 1. To prove to yourself you can do it [and] 2. To prove to everyone else you can do it.”
Habash, who revealed in an interview that he never wrestled, writes about the sport in a way that brings readers to an intimate level with wrestling’s nuances. Using Stephen’s detail-oriented personality and fixation on winning, Habash is able explore the sport’s technical details in a way that would feel dense or overwrought in another novel. In the end, I cared so much about the matches, about Stephen’s understanding of the sport, that I am a proud, newly minted wrestling fan.
Brett Espino’s mentality is simple: he doesn’t like to be bottom. Because one cannot bait from the bottom, he does not like bottom, even if he’s up 2–1. When I kneel down beside him, through my fingers I can sense in his skin his anxiousness to get out from the bottom so he can ride a 3–1 lead and resume the fishing game we just spent a period playing. There’s something like sympathy in taking my position behind him, placing my right hand on his elbow and my left hand seatbelting his stomach while he looks straight ahead, letting me. I place my ear on Brett’s back and hear his heart. “Oh Brett, I told you I was going to eat you,” I whisper to him. Something like sympathy, I could fall asleep if we stayed here long enough.
As much as this novel focuses on wrestling, it is so much more than a sports book. Because Stephen grapples with his place in the world outside of wrestling and because we have so much access to his thoughts and feelings, what starts as the pursuit of a lofty sports goal is in equal measure a journey for sanity, for balance, and for a life filled with meaning.
Stephen Florida explores, in detail, Stephen’s musings about life, his philosophies about people, and the value of winning, and while this kind of repetitious intensity could run thin on the page, Habash manages to explore new and deeper territory with each turn. Stephen is a single-minded character, but he is also intensely disturbed, potentially dangerous, and close to coming unhinged. This invitation to such a complex mind was one of my favorite aspects of the novel and part of my resounding applause. For a character so simple in his goals, Stephen is enormously deep.
Haunted by the death of his parents and a faraway aunt who flickers in, but mostly out of his life, it doesn’t take long for readers to learn that Stephen is lonely—terribly so—and outside of the value wrestling brings to his life, aimless and empty. Winning the college championship means, for Stephen, beating back the ghosts of his late childhood and overcoming the necessity to find meaning outside of physical excellence. In this way, Stephen Florida is a novel anyone can relate to. Who are we outside of our accomplishments? This is a question everyone has grappled with.
Still, the novel forces potential failure onto Stephen, revealing how desperate he is (how desperate we all are) for human connection. His wayward and flaky aunt, an all too-brief relationship with a classmate, and the commitment necessary to maintain meaningful friendships—Stephen struggles with them all. In an attempt to keep this pressure at bay, he leans into wrestling even harder. As we all know, this almost never works.
The novel takes a dark bent in Stephen’s desperate actions but Habash flexes some literary muscle in a character that acts as a physical representation of Stephen’s demons. The Frogman is an unknowable figure that haunts Stephen Florida—quite literally. He sends Stephen a note, waits for him in the corner of his bedroom, and is both omnipresent and never there, all at the same time. Habash keeps this element at an arms length in the novel, just enough to disquiet readers and disrupt Stephen’s focus. “The Frogman moves in the corner. I don’t look.” I appreciated this element of the novel so much. It wasn’t heavy handed, but delivered deftly, and in small doses. Just enough for readers, and Stephen to remember, that no amount of success or self-sacrifice will abate our need for human connection.
As the novel enters its second and third acts Habash writes, at times, sentence-long paragraphs revealing Stephen’s state of mind. For me, they were attempts to access Stephen’s thoughts as they were happening live. Some reflect emotional states: “Stephen Florida is losing it.” And others, quiet hints: “Suicidal behavior has been observed in more female animals than male and in more vertebrates than invertebrates.” The result is the rising tension of a novel that is almost impossible to put down.
While my criticisms of the novel are few, and Stephen’s character is beautifully complex, I found his self-awareness contradictory at times. His emotional intelligence is evident, and he takes great pride in his ability to focus, but he is portrayed as somewhat dim academically. Athlete-dumb. I found Stephen so interesting and his insights so pinprick smart, that this was occasionally hard to believe. Still, one could argue this is characterization at its best: Habash presents Stephen as one-track smart. He understands that his character cares about wrestling above all else. The rest, as Stephen says, is just noise.
The ending of Stephen Florida peaks beautifully. The rising action at the novel’s conclusion is reminiscent of films like Black Swan or Foxcatcher. The writing is so stellar, the journey so fully earned, and the ending is as satisfying as they come. Stephen Florida is a novel I’ll come back to as much for its literary merit as for its storytelling, a whitespace that we too often see in smart, literary writing. I can say easily, Stephen Florida is one of my favorite novels this year, and that Habash has set a high bar for the literary sports novel. - Kim Winternheimer

Consider the most obsessed person you’ve ever met, multiple that obsession a millionfold, and you get Stephen Florida, the eponymous hero of Gabe Habash’s gripping debut novel. Orphaned and adrift, sleepwalking through his final year of college in a bleak North Dakota anytown, Stephen devotes his energy to one concrete goal: winning the regional wrestling championship.
What begins as a study in Stephen’s take-no-prisoners approach to training and its related deprivations — limited food, a brutal physical regimen, occasional laxative therapy, no sex or masturbation — soon tips into a harrowing study of repression and the emotional and mental dissociative tendencies common to survivors of trauma. We learn that cool-as-a-cucumber Stephen is fleeing the horror of his parents’ accidental deaths and the loss of his beloved grandmother — and with those losses, any tethered connection to the wider social world.
Habash deftly unpacks the recurring anxieties of millennial masculinity. Stephen’s physical grappling becomes an exquisite and complicated metaphor for the emotional and existential struggle of so many young North American men, uprooted and uncertain in a world where celebrity subs in for self-esteem and the competitive crush of the sports arena annihilates the weak and the vulnerable.
Caught between the bruising wounds of his past and the uncertain beacon of a championship future, Stephen is emotionally frozen, unable to cope with the collective demands of college life. His scorn for social engagements and the noisy rituals of the weekend, and his biting mockery of his classmates fail to soothe his sensitive psyche.
Yet how broken is he? To what great lengths is Stephen Florida capable of going in order to keep his inner world glued together?
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Sprinkled throughout the novel are compound examples of Stephen’s dizzying emotional slippage, his tense outbursts of rage — bloodying a helpless opponent, pounding his ragged fist into a wall. When he buys a used firearm, concealing the gun beneath his bed, we begin to wonder whether Stephen is bent on more destructive forms of self-harm, capable of acting out his rage in public acts of terror. Much of the novel’s tension lies in such grim uncertainties and Habash is gifted in his ability to imbue even the most mundane scene with nuance and muted suspense.
Stephen’s monotonous existence is interrupted when he meets enigmatic Mary Beth, a big-dreaming art student hell bent on leaving North Dakota, and sidekick Linus, a gifted freshman wrestler. These two figures are flickering stars in the dim constellation of Stephen’s social world. When Mary Beth abruptly leaves town and a slow-boiling jealousy erupts with Linus — just as a freak accident threatens to derail Stephen’s wrestling ambitions — he is left emotionally bereft.
It’s here that the novel takes its darkest turn, excavating the shape-shifting, ravaging corners of depression and loneliness. Stephen’s deviant tendencies — an illicit connection to an older Russian cleaner; an obsession with a reclusive, possibly criminal music professor — are brought to the light. Despite its contemporary sensibility, the cryptic absence of technology — no smart phones, computers, social media, or texting — imbues the tale with a noirish, Twin Peaks feel.
An out-of-left-field phone call from a distant aunt and a period of forced rehabilitation draw Stephen deeper into his well of self-loathing and despair. Doubling down on a secret training regimen, which brings him to the brink physically and emotionally, Stephen begins to consider what his life will look like post-graduation.
While Habash expertly mines Stephen’s inner world for clues about how childhood trauma impacts our decision-making abilities in early adulthood, he renders his hero a deeply flawed and familiar character, someone with whom we identify and rebel against in equal measure, much like the mortally wounded Jude in Hanya Yanagihara’s spectacular debut A Little Life. Yet where Yanagihara offers reams of background evidence for Jude’s self-defeating behaviours, Habash keeps Stephen Florida’s background mostly under the radar, carving its dark contours in only the broadest of emotional brush strokes.
A spellbinding coming-of-age novel, Stephen Florida is not the kind of book content with clean plot lines or loose ends tied up neatly. Instead, it’s a deeply satisfying peek into the mind and heart of a troubled young man trying desperately to rein in the chaotic and multiplying forces of a world he cannot control. - Trevor Corkum

“Is Stephen Florida fatuous or just glib?” muses the eponymous narrator of “Stephen Florida,” whose real name, Steven Forster, was changed due to a clerical error.
Well, he’s arch, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, in this debut novel by Gabe Habash, that’s one of Stephen’s few arresting traits. The chief attribute with which Habash — the deputy reviews editor for Publishers Weekly — endows Stephen is self-absorption. And that will rarely beguile a reader.
“Up in an armpit of the United States” (a fictional town in North Dakota), apparently before cellphones and the internet, Oregsburg college senior Stephen covets a wrestling championship. Habash describes his protagonist’s bouts with brio and expertise. He also conveys the young man’s single-minded obsession powerfully, even poetically. “And just like that,” observes Stephen, “when I’m putting my clothes on after the shower, the impatient despairing dwarf inside me squawks, begging for more, coughs and curls up through my chest and out my fingers and ears, and I already begin measuring the time to the next time.”
Many college wrestlers, particularly in Habash’s lowly and fictive Division IV (NCAA sports categories consist of only three divisions), would consider what they do a mere avocation. For Stephen, an orphan with a largely submerged yet still painful past, wrestling has served to “redirect the madness in my brain.”
The madness, however, proves far more interesting than the wrestling. And it’s still lurking in the recesses of Stephen’s mind. Habash gives you glimpses of it, especially when Stephen loses girlfriend Mary Beth (who hails from Thief River Falls), and, even worse, suffers a knee injury that sidelines him in the run-up to the championship. Agitated, paranoid and spoiling for a fight, Stephen begins to tilt at windmills; he drives away his best friend, Linus, lashes out at his coaches and embarks on a nutty mission to unmask a music professor whom he believes has murdered his wife.
Yet each and every time you think the guy’s going to take an irrevocable or even dangerous step, he stops short. In the end, his histrionics amount to very little, and you’re left wondering why Habash doesn’t have Stephen’s enforced non-wrestling (and girlfriendless) phase unhinge him and finally ignite the tepid story.
From the beginning of “Stephen Florida,” it’s clear that the protagonist’s visceral need to wrestle is matched in intensity only by his penchant for navel-gazing. As such, a bit of action on his part — the more drastic the better — would have gone a long way toward making him more exciting. It would also have contributed to turning Habash’s novel into something more dynamic than a character study of a brooding and occasionally droll young man. - rayyan al-shawaf
The best character studies are the ones about complicated people, and Stephen Florida, the titularly-named protagonist of Gabe Habash’s debut novel, is about as complicated as a functional person can get. Stephen is troubled — very troubled actually. He is abrasive, crude, and violent. He’s also obsessive and paranoid. There’s something else you should know about him: he’s, thanks to Habash’s mad brilliance, endearing.
“Amidst all of this hardship and sadness, there’s something that’s relatable about Stephen Florida.”
Stephen has a heartbreaking background. As we find out near the opening of Stephen Florida, his parents died in a car crash when he was only 14. He then goes to live with his grandmother, who succumbs to a heart attack before Stephen can reach adulthood. His position in the world is rather pitiful; however, good luck is just around the corner. Stephen, a talented wrestler, gets an offer from Oregsburg College in North Dakota to join the wrestling team, so, naturally, Stephen jumps at the opportunity.
Habash’s decision to give Stephen a difficult upbringing helps establish a layer of empathy that proves itself to be rather elastic as Stephen transitions into the early stages of adulthood at college.
Oregsburg College in North Dakota is where we find Stephen for most of the novel, and it’s here that we first see just how unstable he really is. Wrestling saved him, so he becomes obsessed on keeping his savior at the center of his life — void of any external influences. He tells us early on, “I believe in wrestling, and I believe in the United States of America.” He frequently declares his intentions to win the Division IV NCAA Championship in the 133 weight class, and he reminds us just how important it is to him to take the title:
“Do you believe me when I say I think about it every day, every hour, at least twenty times an hour?”
It’s as if he’s so consumed with clinging to the thing that redeemed him that he can’t see anything (or anyone) else as having any importance in his life, which is especially apparent with his cold interactions with Mary Beth, his girlfriend, and Linus, his friend and teammate.
After Stephen gets injured in his senior year and has to be sidelined, his obsession with wrestling transforms into full-blown paranoia. Stephen begins to fall apart, and we see this by his various interactions. He rambles for pages, oftentimes without paragraphs and with only sporadic punctuation, about things that appear to have little, if any, connection. In one riff, Stephen describes his regrets:
“Here’s what I regret: that I didn’t win every time I wrestled, that too many losses have already happened, that I didn’t pledge to wrestling earlier in life, that I’ll never know how much better and faster I could have been, that I never had any brothers or sisters, that I won’t ever be as strong going right as I am going left, that I wasted so much time wrestling not to lose, that I was too eager and fell right into Derrick Ebersole’s duck, that at regionals I shouldn’t have tried to grab Chris Gomez’s right ankle and I let him out and I couldn’t get him back down and that was it, that my grandma had the stroke, that I couldn’t do better on my SAT, that I’ve forgotten sometimes how to be mean, that I couldn’t hold the near-side bar, that I don’t remember what my grandpa looked like without the help of a picture, that years ago the ice was where it was and the road curved where it did and the other car was where it was and that the other driver had to go, too, and also that I sent that kid to the hospital by himself, that his parents hadn’t ridden in the back of the ambulance and there was no audience to cry over him.”
And just as he finishes, he cycles through another long exchange of nonsense about things he’s thankful for, which ranges from personal motivation to not having spina bifida.
The novel’s structure becomes totally chaotic, matching Stephen’s state of mind as he loses any semblance of reality. And this style works brilliantly. The story reads as a confessional — like a diary that’s had its lock ripped off of it and the pages written in blood. - Bradley Sides

Game of Second-Guessing: An Interview with Gabe Habash

Gabe Habash is the fiction reviews editor for Publishers Weekly. He holds an MFA from New York University and lives in New York.