AN INTRODUCTION BY GARTH GREENWELL
Reading Gabe Habash’s debut novel is exhilarating and disquieting in equal measure. It’s exhilarating because Habash is a real writer, something that’s clear from the first pages of his book, which introduce us to one of the strangest voices I’ve encountered in recent American fiction. It’s disquieting because Habash has, to such a remarkable degree, the courage of his convictions, which means that he follows his narrator’s voice — his narrator’s strangeness — wherever it leads him, however dark or absurd or painful the path.
The novel gives us a year in the life of Stephen Florida, a senior at Oregsburg College in North Dakota, for whom winning the state wrestling championship has become a singular, ferocious obsession. Stephen was orphaned at fourteen, which may be one source of his gnarled inwardness, his inability to connect in any of the normal ways with those around him. But really the novel doesn’t allow us to connect biographical dots with this kind of reductive neatness. Stephen is as much a condition as a character, an existential fact.
This is important because Habash is after something more than a character study in Stephen Florida. In this excerpt, Stephen visits an oil field on the recommendation of a career counselor. (One of Habash’s talents, in this and many other scenes, is to reveal the hilariously absurd in the crushingly banal.) He stays with the counselor’s nephew — throughout the passage Stephen thinks of him as “Nephew Shane” — who turns out to be even more severely off-kilter, more walled-off and strange, than Stephen himself.
Stephen is as much a condition as a character, an existential fact.
Like the other great obsessives that populate American literature — their common forebear is Ahab — Stephen’s seeming singularity reveals something essential about ourselves. His eccentricity doesn’t lead into crabbed corners but opens out onto philosophical expanses. What Habash offers in this powerful novel is a sad, sometimes funny, finally devastating anatomy of American loneliness.
Author of What Belongs to You
A Story About Two Men Unraveling in Isolation
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“No Alcohol, No Women, No Drugs, No Visitors”
by Gabe Habash
Nephew Shane, a person I’ve never met before, drives very fast. While he diddles with the stick, I mentally ﬁll out the North Regional 133 bracket, which I copied down before leaving and stuck in my shoe. He lights a cigarette and tosses the pack onto the dash, next to a green glove and two socks. For most of the three-hour drive, we’ve been under a silence he insisted on. He turned the radio to the country station and the whole time, his hand has either been down his pants or holding a cigarette. Somewhere west of Stanley on Route 2, I stopped recognizing what I saw out the window.
“The foremost thing I want to stress to you has real importance. You can make a lot of money.”
“How much?” The ﬁelds here are not like regular Oregsburg ﬁelds, they don’t appear to have a function. Some are full of gravel. But then I see: a sign for residential development in one plot, and then another, and then in the next one what looks like a house for phantoms. A grand building uterus, rectangle holes for future windows, blowing Tyvek.
“You work twelve-hour shifts. Two weeks on, one week oﬀ. Plus you get a daily living allowance if you’re living in a Junette camp, which I am. I could buy anything I wanted. I’ll put it this way: I could buy antiques. I could buy a Japanese sword. The work’s not going to slow down for a long time, either. You know that much about oil?”
“I saw the James Dean movie as a kid.”
“You have a lot of testosterone running around here, a lot of competition. You ﬁnd your friends, you know, but there’s not so much compassion. Lots of weapons. If it’s late and you’re in a bar, you can expect a ﬁght, cops are already waiting outside for it to get going.” Shane turns down the radio, which is playing Dolly Parton. We pass through a town with restaurants and bars, lights, general stores, and three diﬀerent car dealerships. “Lots of strippers. Guys show up to work with red eyes from when they got pepper-sprayed the night before. They deserved it. You have people sleeping in their cars, people not careful with exhaust fumes and closed spaces, it was twenty-four below the other night, if you’re, you know, doing the trick where you turn the heat on and oﬀ to save it up, you can fall asleep and forget to turn it oﬀ again. A lot of greedy people, bad things are going to happen. People are bad at giving up. A lot of the time they don’t do it early enough. But a lot of the guys come up here for three, four, ﬁve months, trying to save some money up, get back on their feet. Then there are guys who are up here for good. People end up in a new situation, they don’t act like themselves. People are animals. Men, really, is who I mean.”
Then the derricks appear. Dozens of them. Across the white ﬁelds the heads of the pump jacks nod slowly, the cranes rotate. Stacks of steel pipe. Perpetual gas ﬂares.
I can’t wait to get to Kenosha. I’ve never met a real genius before, that’s where I’ll get a chance to wrestle at least a few of them. That’s a gift and I’m lucky.
I have wondered dozens of times whether I have a special skill at turning the people I come across in my life into ghosts, into glass, temporary ﬁgures. I wonder sometimes if that’s my backup talent. Maybe someday one of them will look me up.
“We’re close,” he assures me, and we stop at a gas station. While he ﬁlls the tank, I stretch my legs. I walk to the edge of the pavement and stare oﬀ at the neighboring ﬁeld, four rigs in scattered positions, termite mud tunnels below. Two white trucks pass each other on the road. Snow keeps coming down on my head. Behind the rigs and their holes, I see the willful, inarticulate loneliness. It leans its head around the edge to see if you’ve spotted it. Every time you turn to face an oil ﬁeld, you feel something was just there a moment ago but has evaporated.
Where the pavement becomes snow, there’s a Honda parked with a dog, a German shepherd, leashed around the door handle. The dog picks his head oﬀ the ground, snow and dirt on his chin, and sits up but doesn’t bark as I approach the fender. The backseat is cluttered all the way to the roof with junk, bits of a life or two, things you’d ﬁnd at a garage sale, boxes. Both of the front seats are reclined all the way back. On the driver’s side is a man and next to him is a pregnant woman, and both of them are asleep.
“You ready?” I turn around. Shane’s carrying two huge bags, walking from the station store. “Toilet paper’s on sale, ninety-six rolls.” He jams them between us inside the truck. “This much, even if it’s on sale you can’t help looking like a cretin. Hey, can I ask you a question? How do you feel about your ears? Like is that something you’re self-conscious about or is it dust in the wind?”
I look over the top of the toilet paper at Shane. “Dust in the wind,” I say. He nods, turns, and stares straight ahead, and when he blinks, his eyes stay shut for long periods of time.
“Your aunt was a big help to me. At the college.”
“Oh yeah? What’s your major?”
“That’s the one with all the choices?”
“Yeah. She helped me narrow it down.”
I want to get the whole story out of him, about how often my college’s career counselor sends lost seniors to spend time with her nephew, the one who’s straightened his life out, who’s saving up thousands of dollars for no clear reason in exchange for being alone.
“Have you spoken with her about other students?”
“I don’t talk to Aunt Gina too much anymore.”
And then he turns oﬀ the road. We drive on a dirt track toward a towering gray derrick. Every single rig looks exactly the same. Like the head of Vladimir Lenin put up at the Pole of Inaccessibility.
He parks next to a few other trucks. I look at the various-height platforms, yellow railings, a windsock, a crane, ﬂoodlights facing every direction. He emits a theatrical sigh and takes the green glove from the dash, slipping it onto his right hand. “You are supposed to have two of these,” he says. “Don’t tell nobody. O.K., turn around while I get into character.”
While facing away from him, looking at a shipping container with the Junette logo on it, a red elephant’s head, a question arrives: Is this a lonelier person than me? Or is he simply someone who has taken loneliness to heart in a more painstaking manner? I spit into the snow.
Shane emerges in red coveralls and a red hardhat. We walk over to stores where he rustles up the same outﬁt for me, handing it to me in a folded military-style stack, with a little baggie of earplugs on top. He gets a new package of gloves. “Everyone’s already here. Hurry up, we’re late.”
The rig has more men in red suits. “There are three main rules: don’t drop anything in the hole, don’t put anyone else in danger, don’t put yourself in danger.”
“Hurry the fuck up, Shane, you prickhole!” someone yells from somewhere above, and then I realize I’m walking under a ten-thousand-pound machine and it’s emitting an enormous, spaceless insect drone. I get a glimpse of one of them on what appears to be the central platform, where the good stuﬀ happens, twenty or thirty feet up, but Shane leads us the other way, farther under.
“What’s he doing up there? Those people?”
He looks at me as though I’ve asked what a dog looks like. “They’re drilling.”
“What are we doing down here?”
“My job is leasehand. There’s six people per rig, all of them have diﬀerent jobs. My job is to keep the rig clean and clear. We don’t just all crowd around the hole. The work is hard.”
In an eﬀort to connect with him, I say, “My therapist tells me I make obstacles where there aren’t any.”
He coughs and says, “Put your earplugs in.”
For the next three hours, we move heavy chemical bags from one side of the site to the other side, closer to the center hole. Potassium chloride, ﬂy ash, bentonite, calcium carbonate, guar gum powder. Shane never explains why we’re moving them to the new place.
“What’s this do?” I say while we’re carrying sacks of barite.
“It increases density, adds weight to the drilling ﬂuid.” It’s obvious things will only be explained when I directly ask, but his answers are so pissy that I shut my dirty mouth.
Our meal break lasts thirty minutes. Shane eats an orange and leaves one earplug in. By the time it’s over, it’s already getting dark.
We clean walkways and stairways, then we clean tools to a military shine in the tool den. We move more chemical bags. While Shane poops in the portable bathroom, I eat an orange. I let the peels fall in tatters on the snow and when it’s all gone I smell my ﬁngers, which are full of perfume. I enter a place of boredom and serenity, I have a hard time believing any of this. All of it seems like the vast dream of a colossus. I have a hard time believing that Nephew Shane makes his living on a rig and lives alone and just works, perpetuating a savings account for an unclear reason. The rigs look like huge props in a huge stage play with no theme and a plot where faceless people just enter an empty ﬁeld and pull levers over a deep hole, and then send what they ﬁnd to other faceless people who really, really want it.
They don’t pay any attention to the loneliness because they feel lucky, they’ve been caught up in feeling lucky since they got here and they are loyal to the feeling.
We drag hoses out from under tall red tanks on the perimeter for two hours. I try to ﬁgure out what I’ve learned.
During the night meal break, one of them comes over and says something quietly to Shane. Shane nods, looks at me, and asks, “Are you doing all right?” When everyone’s done eating, we walk back out into the night and Shane says, “This is a light day relative because we’re drilling. They’ve been drilling all day, up on the ﬂoor. We’re going to go up there now with them. There’s a problem down-hole, probably the drill bit is worn out. We have to trip pipe. That means we have to pull out all the pipe from the well and replace the bit. This could take a while. Do you understand?”
“This will be a lesson for you.”
I lose track of time watching them under the floodlights, hearing the drone in my ears closer than ever before, the ﬂoor moving through my shoes, they do the same thing over and over, pulling segments of the pipe and disconnecting them as they emerge from the center hole and attaching them to a descending arm that pulls the pipe away. At ﬁrst I’m reminded of hospitals putting those worm cameras in people’s butts to check things out, but after a while (I’m not allowed to participate or even get close), I’m not reminded of anything, watching the routine repeat itself countless times turns it into something diﬀerent, the purpose dissolves, the act becomes the representation of itself, the same way reading a whole book in Sanskrit if you’re not Sanskrit has nothing behind it, the way you stare at a shut curtain and imagine the actors getting into place on the other side. When they ﬁnally reach the end of the line, they inspect the drill bit, which looks like a deep-sea-life cluster, three huge oysters stuck together. A few of them shake their heads. I look at Shane for a reaction, but I can tell from his still face that he’s in a glazed state of mind.
Someone touches my shoulder. I turn around, and there’s three or four other men in red Junette suits. The new shift crew.
He tells me to go wait in the truck while he changes out of the dirty coveralls. A few minutes later he comes jogging up without a coat on, only a white T-shirt with black splotches on his neck and wrists. In the truck, he immediately lights a cigarette, then he says, “Before we go, there’s porno in one of the lockers in the stores if you want.”
“No, I’m O.K.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. All of those guys in there? They want you to think they’re really great fathers but they’re all just furiously jacking oﬀ all the time.”
“I’m not embarrassed.”
The drive is very short. He only says one thing the whole way: “Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?”
Though I don’t want to answer, I feel like I don’t have a choice. “I’m not opposed to the idea, but in my life I’ve had zero mystical awakenings.”
It’s dark and there are few lights, but soon there’s a pattern of repeating trailers alongside the unplowed road, which we bump over slowly. The same square cell of a house, a number in red next to the front door. There are so many houses, they’re divided into blocks and the numbers reset after twenty. Shane turns the truck onto one of the dirt roads. In one out of every seven or eight houses, lights are on. Shane’s window is part of the way down for his cigarette but there’s no noise, no overloud TVs or other motors. It had never crossed my mind that most of the units could be unoccupied. Shane says, “This is it,” and points the nose of the truck at the wood steps to his door. His house is the same as the ones on either side, except those are empty.
He pulls out a riﬂe from under his seat. “If you want to wait inside the key’s under the mat.”
“What’s that for?”
“I’ve had some coyotes coming around. I just want to check around back.”
I don’t move, because I don’t want to go into his weird house by myself, so I sit in the passenger seat with the toilet paper leaning on me and watch out the windshield as he creeps around the side of the house. I look down the empty road, listening for the gunshot I’m ﬁfty percent sure is coming. I tell myself that I’m not being led through the steps of this experience, but that I’m a living person who chose this and who’s been around for two decades and that this is just something new and that it will, like everything else, have little eﬀect on what comes after for the rest of my life, until I’m dead. I try not to be edgy about why I can’t picture what’s inside the house or how he’s moving around in the dark with a riﬂe. Then he reappears and opens the door and puts the riﬂe back in its place. “Come on, it’s cold as shit. Leave your shoes on the mat.”
Shane’s place is mostly one large main room. I eyeball the dimensions, and my ﬁrst thought, though it’s unintended and sudden, is, could this place support my family? Would I even have a family if I ended up in a place like this?
I hesitate at the doorway. He laughs. “Your Excellency is troubled?”
There are stacks of newspapers all over the ﬂoor. The one nearest me has a paper from last October on top. A mainly empty bookshelf, except for a row of books by R. Austin Freeman, wedged into one corner. A television that looks like it could never possibly work. Two pieces of furniture: a couch and a recliner. There’s an unmarked, rumpled paper bag on the ground between the couch and the wall. Something smells like moist cook stink. The stains all over the thin beige carpet look like clouds or footprints. He turns a light on next to the couch, which is dark purple leather, and carries the toilet paper into the kitchen.
“Couch is where you’ll be. Over there’s the bathroom. I got extra covers in the closet, that’s the door next to the bathroom. Here. And on this side is the kitchen and my room. Self-explanatory.” On the largest wall is the kind of art you see in a nameless hotel where crime drifts through on a regular basis. It’s a panoramic watercolor of a woodsy lake at dawn, but it’s enormous, maybe twenty feet long. It’s very cold in the house.
“Do you feel tired?”
“Good. That means you did it right. Mostly, I come home and take the edge oﬀ, then sleep. Take a seat, make yourself at home.” He walks into the kitchen.
I do what people do in the movies, which is study the spines of the books. Aside from the Freeman batch, there’s nothing, except three shelves lower, by itself, an extremely thick book with a white spine called The Original of Man. I slide it out. On the cover is a photograph of an ape looking out from behind a thick tree branch. I can’t ﬁnd an author name anywhere. The back of the book says: “The diary of the prophet Mels through the greatest events of the premodern world. Now with expanded events surrounding the prehuman existence of Jesus Christ.”
I turn to the back: it’s 1,344 pages. Then I ﬂip to somewhere in the middle, to a random page.
Under the warm yellow glow of the lamp, two butch queers were taking turns sodomizing each other on the far side of the room. Another hairless man masturbated while watching them. This was alongside the eunuch he had stabbed, over and over. The candlelight licked their luminous skins. Everything smelled of turmeric. He took his eyes away from all of them and gazed down at the slave mistress. In his ears he thought he could still hear the dripping from the cut pig, the fat one the kohanim wouldn’t touch. Over the sounds of the pained moaning in the room he could also hear the Hivite crowd outside. The city was full of pregnant whores. “Perhaps I shall destroy the Pharisees with my semen,” he said to the girl, inspired by how enthusiastically she lapped up every drop of his semen while passionately sucking his penis with her mouth. “It would be a curse on them, would it not? I am a pagan.” And then the slave bitch tried to say something but he ejaculated hard into her mouth. He laughed at her while she continued to play with herself rabidly between her legs. He looked around to make sure the other slave whores were watching for what he was about to do next, and then he took from under
I slam the book shut and jam it back on the shelf. He comes out of the kitchen with two cups. He walks up to me and hands me one. There’s something brown and brown-smelling in it.
“In a man camp, mainly the rules are no alcohol, no women, no drugs, no visitors. At least that’s in principle.” He puts his mouth on his cup and swallows.
“I was just looking at that book you have over there.”
“I’ve never read anything like it,” he says. “I’ll have to let you borrow it sometime.”
“I don’t mean to be uncourteous. Don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t drink any of that stuﬀ.”
“All right,” he says, grabbing the cup from me, then he walks back into the kitchen with both of them. I hear something bang, he slams something. When he comes back out, his hands are empty.
“Do you want to shower ﬁrst or should I?”
He sits on the couch with his cup. “You go ﬁrst, there’s towels and soap and shit in there.”
I take clean clothes from my bag and go into the bathroom. It’s exactly the size of two coﬃns. It’s cleaner than expected. I sit on the toilet but only pee. Then I stare at myself in the mirror for two or three minutes. I don’t open the medicine cabinet. Then I pull open the shower curtain and on a hook in the tiles, there’s a gorilla mask, the hook curving through the left eye hole.
I walk out of the bathroom. “What is that? Why do you have that in there?”
“That mask in there.”
“What’s wrong? It was my roommate’s kid’s. His kid was a little gorilla for Halloween and he kept it around here. Don’t ask me why, he was weird and I didn’t know him.”
I shower. All the grit and stick from the rig comes oﬀ. The hot water runs out quickly, but even after it’s done, I stand under the water in order to shorten the amount of time I have to spend with him. I do not let my thoughts address why I’m uncomfortable. I swallow cold water from the shower head until I’m not thirsty anymore.
When I exit the bathroom, the ﬁrst thing I notice is my bag’s moved closer to him on the couch. “I just left the towel on the ﬂoor in there, is that O.K.?”
“Yeah, no problem, I’m just getting the edge oﬀ.”
I’m standing behind him and can only see the back of his head.
“Can I have a thing of water?”
He goes into the kitchen and comes back with one cup, clearly the same one he handed me before.
There are black specks suspended in the water. He goes to his bedroom and turns the light on, gets something, and closes the bathroom door behind him.
I go over to the recliner. I can hear the shower water. I become nervous about what’s in the paper bag between the couch and the wall. Standing up, I nudge it with my foot. It slumps over. Then I open it up. Inside, there’s a pile of old hamburgers.
While he’s in the bathroom, I do sit-ups and push-ups alternating until I’m spent. Then, breathing hard, I sit in the recliner and take out the regional bracket. I’m in the top half of the bracket with a mid-seed, the lowest-ranked seed to get a bye in the ﬁrst round. On the other side of the bracket is Joseph Carver and Jan Gehring. I’m going to have to wrestle Marty Marion in my second match, the one-seed, a pasty, volatile junior from Standberg who’s ﬁnished ﬁfth and fourth the last two years at 133.
When I hear a car approaching, I sit up straight and listen, I wait for it to pass by.
He comes out of the bathroom in only underwear. Down the middle of his torso, there’s a vertical line of black letters. He turns oﬀ the brightest lamp in the room, so the only light is a reading lamp between the couch and the recliner.
“What’s it say?”
He sits down on the couch, on the end close to me. “Latin. ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’”
But it doesn’t say that. I look up into the stucco ceiling, try to take comfort in the bumps and dots, but ﬁnd none. He’s made it darker in the room. I can hear his breathing. It’s very cold in the house, I have the feeling he messed with the thermostat when I wasn’t paying attention. I try to put out of mind that I don’t know him very well and that I’ve never taken Latin before but I know “cor” is the word for “heart” and that’s not anywhere in the letters on his chest.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask.
“There’s not a lot of girls out here. Some drivers, some work on the rigs. I don’t know how they do it, it’s hard enough if you’re not white, imagine being a woman. They don’t go out after dark. There was a teacher here, the other week she went jogging, they found her sneaker in a ditch. It’s a real problem.”
My attempt to keep focused on the ceiling ends, I bring my head down and my eye catches something in the corner: a huge waterless ﬁsh tank. The car outside goes by again, and I’m sure it’s the same one.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m saving up for an octopus. I read a thing in a magazine. It said they’re cannibals. I read about a female that after mating wrapped her arms around the male and closed oﬀ his mantle, where he takes in his oxygen, and then carried him back to her den.”
“I didn’t know you could have one here.”
“It’s allowed. You need a one-hundred-eighty-gallon. I’m going to get two for the tank there.”
I realize Shane might be a more disturbed person than I thought. And gradually, a thought comes over me that turns my stomach: there hasn’t been a long line of lost students invited up here, that I’m the ﬁrst, that I’m the only student he’s brought back to his house.
Just then, over his shoulder in his bedroom, the lights shut oﬀ.
“The lights just went oﬀ in your room.”
“I have them on a timer.”
I think how many thoughts I’ve had in the past month that’ve turned out to be incorrect. I discard the image that’s forming of Shane in his house reading The Original of Man while an octopus silently ﬂoats around the ﬁsh tank in his living room.
“You’re by yourself?”
“Yeah, most everyone comes out here by themself. I had a roommate, he was here until about a week ago, his name was Hector, he would travel during his week oﬀ, go see his kid. I guess he couldn’t do it anymore, I don’t know.” That’s when I hear the thump, coming from his bedroom, but I pretend I don’t, pretend I’m relaxing and not paying attention. I can feel him looking at me, and I try to forget that he’s not wearing a shirt and it keeps getting colder.
“Are you sure we’re alone?”
“I already said it to you. It’s odd. I don’t know, sometimes you get to wondering.”
“Wondering about what?”
“About what happens to you when you get left alone for so long. As a person, you begin to change. Sometimes I’ve been so angry I thought I couldn’t go to work. I don’t feel like myself sometimes.”
“You mean like thoughts?” There’s something behind the back of my chair with its jaw hanging open.
“Yeah, I’ve had some thoughts, bad ones. I’ve had . . . once or twice . . .”
There should be at least the sound of traﬃc or the wind, but there’s nothing, and suddenly it’s very dark and I sit still and don’t move, hoping what’s at the end of the sentence is not what I think it is.
He is looking right at me.
“Once or twice what?” I say quietly.
His chest ﬁlls with air and he sighs. “Just a few times,” he says, breathing faster. “It gets . . . bad.”
I don’t move my eyes or make any noise, but what seems to have bobbed up near the surface has gone back down again. I dance around it and take delicate steps.
“I understand this is very hard.”
“It is, very hard.”
“I can see it.”
He stands up and rubs his face. “I think we should go to bed, O.K.?”
“O.K.,” I say. We both stand up. “In one of my classes we talked about how octopuses will do self-cannibalism.”
He goes over into his room and slams the door.
I walk outside, down to the end of the unﬁnished block. Either something’s moving around the settlement or it’s completely empty. I can’t tell. I can’t make anyone feel better. I can’t make myself better or any of them. I forget the name of the town I’m in. I forget where I am geographically in relation to anything I’ve encountered before. Then I remember.
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.
Then when it gets too cold, I walk back and lie down on the couch, and probably would’ve been too frightened to sleep if I wasn’t so tired or if I was afraid that kind of thing could ever really happen to me.