“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 is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.