It’s Not Always Sunny in Stephen Florida

Gabe Habash takes aim for the debut novel of the year title with Stephen Florida

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.

Earning a Spot in the Neighborhood

Stephen completely loses it. He hides in bathrooms. He spies on people. He makes up all kinds of lies, which he might even possibly (and probably) believe. He becomes totally reckless. In a startling admittance, Stephen declares, “For many hours, I meditate on failure.” He considers suicide — and wonders even if he is, in fact, a real person. At one point, he says, “There is no real Stephen Florida. I am only a giant collection of gas and light and will.”

Amidst all of this hardship and sadness, there’s something that’s relatable about Stephen Florida. After all, he’s a young person who’s had a rough journey, and he’s trying to find his way. There’s hope for him just as there’s hope for all of us. As unlikeable as Stephen can get, he finds redemption, and there’s a real beauty in that. Habash makes us root for Stephen, and this achievement has to be celebrated.

Stephen Florida is hard to classify. Yes, it’s an intense character study, but it’s also a fierce and ambitious horror novel, exploring the very real dangers we try to keep at bay in so many of our seemingly harmless obsessions. There are scenes so remarkably dark that I had to put the book away. There’s anger in these pages — and there’s pain. The atmosphere, cold but simultaneously sweaty, makes everything click with a steady, yet animalistic precision.

Some readers might argue that Habash’s debut is overlong or overripe with intensity. Perhaps it is, but the raw grittiness contained in these pages is part of what makes the book feel so accomplished. Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is dizzying, dazzling, and, ultimately, divine.

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