Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash is a frenetic, frantic, frustrating and, above all, fun read. Habash is the product of an MFA program at New York University and the fiction reviews editor for Publishers Weekly. His complex fictional creation, college wrestler and titular hero Stephen Florida, isn’t so easy to grasp, and that’s what makes him so fascinating. Readers will be thoroughly engrossed by Florida’s whirlwind thoughts, philosophical questions, mood swings, yearnings for success and hapless attempts at finding emotional or social satisfaction with his girlfriend, best friend, teammates and coach.
Habash firmly roots the reader in Florida’s perilous psyche. In the vast openness and plain lifestyle of the Midwest, Florida is in the middle of nothingness, both physically and mentally. All that matters—as if it matters at all—is winning the NCAA wrestling championship in his weight class. Everything he has ever been is predicated on that one goal, that one desire, the one driving impulse. Thoughts of what comes next are hardly top of mind.
At times the story is frustratingly depressing, Florida’s antics aggravating, and his self-imposed isolationism infuriating. When he injures his knee during a match and is sidelined by surgery, his quest for national glory is put in serious jeopardy. He falls into a proverbial funk from which there seems no escape. You want to just hit him across the face and scream, “Snap out of it!” But at other times, you’re right there with him, feeling his pent-up rage, his overwhelming obsession, his need to slap someone else in the face or break their arm on the wrestling mat. You want to be Stephen Florida, if just for a little while, to relive past glories or to just ponder the path not taken.