When Gabe Habash set out to write his debut novel, Stephen Florida, he knew one thing for certain: he wanted to write about what he didn’t know.
It’s an unusual decision for a first-time novelist—all the more so considering that the resulting book, an immersive trip through the mind of a monomaniacal “Division IV” college wrestler, is written in the confident manner of authors who mask their all-too-familiar secrets. But Habash says there’s no other way he could have made it through the years-long process of writing the book. “If I’m writing about somebody who has a lot of the same things with me in my life, I will just get tired of writing about it,” he tells Paste by phone. “I go into writing as a way of finding things out, because I don’t always know where it’s going.”
Stephen Florida follows the senior-year season of its titular character, a wrestler at the fictional Oregsburg College in North Dakota. Wrestling demands an uncommon level of physical and mental control from its participants, and opportunities to compete beyond college—barring the Olympics—are basically nil. Habash was drawn to both elements of the sport, and he wanted to see if he could create a controlled narrative to match the dedication of a wrestler facing the end of his career. “I just really like the idea of someone pursuing something very simple and singular,” the Columbus, Ohio-born writer says.
Stephen, Habash’s beguiling protagonist, certainly fits the bill.
Wrestling’s appeal to Stephen lays in its lack of abstraction. It’s scored in a point-based system, but the truest measure of victory lies in one’s ability to force one’s opponent into submission. Stephen is so intently focused on this that he shuns even the meager socialization offered by his teammates. He’s blown three prior chances at winning the championship, so he stakes everything on his final chance at getting his name permanently entered into the Division IV wrestling record book. “After I’m dead,” he reflects, “from time to time, maybe someone will scan through the past results and come across my name.”
But Stephen struggles to quiet the chatter of his mind, to empty himself of everything but his desire to win. Memories of his deceased parents and grandmother jostle for his attention amid a burgeoning romance with another wrestler, Stephen’s only teammate whose dedication—and skill—resembles his own.
Stephen’s only truly at peace while he’s wrestling. The moments when he is on the mat are the book’s best, delivering a near-perfect combination of lyricism and clinical detachment:
He picks bottom. And the reality is that he’s a good wrestler, good enough that I can’t pin him, but not as good as I am, and this becomes a fact. Wrestling is unprejudiced and open minded, and it’s impossible to argue with. It always tells the truth, and that’s why so many men love it. […] Men made of mesh, men made of tinsel, paper, dust. I was one for the seasons before this one. I was an infant with no good pictures, with an asymmetrical face, but now I am squatting on Poynter’s body, turning off his water, riding him until the end of the match.
Habash says he studied “countless” wrestling YouTube videos and read coaching guides and other books to grasp the technical vocabulary of the sport, and a family friend who had competitively wrestled read a draft to check it for accuracy. He also attended a handful of meets, struggling to reconcile his outsider’s view with that of someone actually in the match.
What allowed him to combine the two was Stephen’s strange voice, full of twists, turns and evasions. The novel’s structure is fairly pedestrian, beginning shortly after the beginning of Stephen’s senior season and ending in the moments after the season’s final match. Habash made that choice, he says, to free himself up to explore the side-paths of Stephen’s restless mind. “The book has a lot of sort of side-turns and weird asides,” Habash says, “but the structure of the book is very straightforward. And that allows me to do these more out there experiments with the story, because I was working in a very contained framework.”
The idea of operating within a framework is something Habash shares with his protagonist. “It’s why Stephen adheres so passionately to wrestling,” Habash says. “He views it as this circumscribed area where he can impose his will and control on things. Whereas so many other things in his life don’t play out the way he would like them to. I think he turns to wrestling as an outlet for a place where he can actually impose his system of control over it.”
As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, though, Stephen’s ever-tenuous command of his body and his psyche begins to slip. In a gorgeous and terrifying aside, he leaves campus to visit a “man camp”—a temporary home for roughnecks and drillers, members of North Dakota’s shale oil boom—and it offers a possible glimpse to his future beyond the wrestling mat. Yet even here there is no escaping his solitude; the men he meets, burly “alphas” all, are dwarfed by the vast landscape. After a disturbing interaction with one driller, Stephen steps outside into the cold winter air: “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.”
The narrative quickly moves past this moment—the championship is approaching, after all—but the giant continues to loom over Stephen in one form or another. By the time the championship meet in Kenosha, Wisconsin arrives, he reaches an exalted state, clad in an extravagant fur jacket. But just before the final match, something strange happens. Stephen looks around the gymnasium’s rafters for “a black creature, an animal waiting to descend.”
“But there is nothing. It has stopped following me. The truth is that enormous. There is either no menace left in Kenosha or it is coming from me, it’s coming from my mouth.”
The novel’s end ultimately delivers little in the way of resolution, either for the reader or for Stephen himself. That’s how Habash wanted it.
“I definitely wanted frustration to be something that the reader senses in the book, in terms of not getting answers to a lot of questions that maybe in a more conventional story you would hope to get an answer to,” he says. “I just don’t think life works out that way…I think profound frustration is a necessary and inextricable part of that period of life for a lot of people.”
Lucas Iberico Lozada, Paste’s assistant books editor, is a freelance writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can follow him on Twitter.