By Gabe Habash
Coffee House Press
Reviewed by Brian Birnbaum
In Gabe Habash's debut novel, Stephen Florida, his eponymous antihero pisses on people from his dorm window, pisses into water fountains, and will do whatever it takes to win the NCAA Division IV wrestling championship in the 133-pound weight class. Pared down to its essentials, Stephen Florida appears to be a case study on energy, power, and their conduits—or, put simply, a case study on what one is capable of, given his or her aspirations. The dramaturgically inclined might roll their eyes at yet another motif pinning capability against ethics, all culminating in yet another great moral struggle. And yet, we find quickly, if not overtly, that Habash has no intention of regressing toward the mean, but instead toward an intractably ominous space of Stephen's compelling humanity.
Stephen Florida is a senior at Oregsburg College in North Dakota whose sole ostensible purpose is to win the Division IV wrestling championship in his weight class. Which he's equipped to accomplish, being that his body seems to run on ATP energy generators and reserves of human will that aren't accessible to normal folks. Each day—each hour, it seems—he applies himself to a training regimen at which most Olympians would balk.
From whence does his drive come? Well, the novel opens with Stephen relating a story his mother told him as a child; that his twin had perished in the womb, leaving an extra placenta for him to feed from, which the doctor had predicted would give him great strength. Stephen didn't believe his mother's story, and neither should we. It would never have sufficed to explain for Stephen's barreling inertia.
Set in the forlorn plains of North Dakota, we're primed to feel a boundlessness to Stephen's internal mystery and carnage. But here's what we do know: His parents passed away in a car accident when he was in early adolescence. He then lived with his grandmother up until her death, which was around the time he was offered to wrestle at Oregsburg. He's the top dog at 133, and his best friend and pupil, Linus, is a freshman phenom at 125. He doesn't like to eat in front of others. He's taken a peculiar vow of sexual continence (not total chastity) until he achieves his goal of winning the championship at Kenosha. And in perhaps what turns out to be Habash's quirkiest choice, Stephen Florida's name isn't really Stephen Florida, but Steven Forster; an aging administrator at Oregsburg incorrectly logged his name into the system, and Stephen (Steven?) went right along with it.
Ultimately, it's what we don't know about Stephen that seeps into the narrative space like an intoxicating, noxious vapor, and Habash's exuberantly dark prose is the tragicomic filter. While there can certainly be a pernicious quality to obsession itself, this gas is particularly potent in lieu of obsession's inevitable absence, i.e. whenever Stephen acknowledges what will happen after graduation. He's lost without wrestling and he knows it, albeit intermittently. Stephen puts it most plainly when he says: "Wrestling has kept me busy for about ten years but I've been worrying more and more that it'll do nothing for me once it's over."
Throughout the novel, certain people step into the holographic mirage that is Stephen's championship, warping the distance between him and his pain. The first instance arises when his long-estranged aunt calls with the prospect of moving back from Australia to live with him. She promises Stephen she'll be in North Dakota by his next match. Alas, she doesn't show, and his almost prescient confidence on the mat (". . . and just like that he's under me, I'm his overweight father and he doesn't want to play anymore.") is rattled by peripheral thoughts of her failed promise. During this lapse, his opponent gets a clear shot at his knee and injures it, sidelining him from wrestling for weeks. By now he's met a girl named Mary Beth, with whom he's entered a romance that offers life after his wrestling career. But his injury distances him from her, and Linus for that matter. Ostensibly, he's ashamed by his inability to compete, and while that's not a falsehood, his stonewalling can be attributed more truly to the disruption of his mirage, the inevitable confrontation with its end.
Stephen unravels while convalescing. A tortured spirit already prone to deviance, he inserts himself into physical altercations, meditates on failure in the closet for hours, and neglects several opportunities to mend his strains with Linus and Mary Beth. Trapped in his dorm during a blizzard, he paints his face with peanut butter. Then, as if consecrating his knee's healing, he visits the farmhouse of John Carver, the kid who'd injured his knee; and we're not sure just what he'd have done if he found John rather than his invalid sister, but Stephen does shunt his rage by opening the animal pen. Oh yeah, and he also steals a car.
However, by the time we're halfway through the novel, these invidious mischiefs begin to pale in comparison to the biblical-level iniquities roiling just beneath the surface of Stephen's narrative.
Put too simply, a writer's job, among others, is to brand us with a deep version of experience, using words to show us what's missed by virtue of presence. While Habash doesn't abandon these literary traditions, he employs a more elusive strategy, one that risks failing, leaving us narratively blue-balled, but instead succeeds in creating a haunting, amorphous enigma, an analog perhaps to all that we experience but don't completely confront. Habash's strategy deviates from these traditions after establishing his antihero's purpose—to win at Kenosha—whereupon he practically shoves our face into the mat, and with spittle flying from his pyrotechnic prose, demands to know why should we do anything at all. To this Stephen answers in list form (as he's wont to; he's also listed each opponent he's lost to):
- To prove to yourself you can do it
- To prove to everyone else you can do it
Stephen's list reads: what am I capable of? Wrestling just happens to be the main conduit through which his capability is channeled. But Habash builds throughout the novel these little levers and shunts that can suddenly flip or switch the direction of Stephen's energy (e.g. his injury). This is when the almost innocuous question of what he is going to do, turns jarringly into just what has he done?
In a recent conversation I had with Mark de Silva, whose debut novel, Square Waves, has been met with acclaim, he lamented the contemporary novel is overly confessional. This rings true to me as a worthy cause for my discontent with modern first-person narratives in particular—for how can we be so plainly confessional when we don't even fully know or confront ourselves?
It's with this idea in mind that Habash's subversive method offers far more than MFA-savvy techniques such as the unreliable narrator, or Hemingway's famed iceberg theory. Habash employs those methods, yet does so using a narrative math so much more complex; rather than outright lying (unreliable), or showing what he doesn't tell (iceberg), Habash somehow manages to have his narrator tell what he doesn't tell—a paradox, a regress, a technique whose constructive mechanics gives this writer a headache when trying to parse; and isn't that the defining quality of John Gardner's "narrative dream," if I can't separate the artifice from the narrative solution? Furthermore, Habash accomplishes this through a compelling series of profoundly human conduits that leave us at first heartbroken, then jarred, and finally, yes, exulted, which is perhaps Habash's greatest feat, his intoxicating mist rendering his readers as transfixed witnesses to Stephen's sordid attempts at reconciling himself, and his futile regresses.