Stephen Florida

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Welcome to the world of Stephen Florida, a 20-year-old wrestler attending Oregsburg College in North Dakota. And what a strange, dark world it is: populated with bloodthirsty competing wrestlers, foul-mouthed coaches and trainers, eccentric teachers and students. Stephen himself is severely disturbed, a kid who suffers from loneliness and depression (largely caused by the death of his parents in a car accident). He is also prone to spurts of anger and violence (he once started a fight with a billy goat), and has a bilious view of the human race.

At the same time, Stephen is intelligent, honest and open to life–-even as he questions it in a searching way: “During the course of a life do most people in the world experience more happiness or more suffering?” he wonders. Stephen also has a pretty good sense of humor and manages to arouse the attention and affection of the prettiest and brightest gal on campus, an art history major named Mary Beth.

The latter’s pet hatred is for the state of North Dakota itself. With its savage weather (snow, cold, tornados) and its dog-eat-dog values (fracking, drunken, brawling roughnecks), North Dakota becomes a major character in the book, always making itself felt in a strong, sinister way. It’s the reason why Mary Beth is willing to give up Stephen for a crummy, out-of-state museum job. Stephen has his own bete noir, a shadowy, evil figure called The Frogman, the embodiment of all his fears, neuroses and obsessions.

Gabe Habashi’s STEPHEN FLORIDA is in essence a coming-of-age tale. Stephen has an over-riding goal: to win the Division IV NCAA Championship in the 133-pound class. He must go through much pain, disillusionment, hilarity, madness and absurdity to get there. But get there he does, becoming not just a winning wrestler but a decent human being. Habashi deftly charts Stephen’s journey to manhood in this 288-page, weirdly brilliant and touching novel. (