In 2012, the NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher took his life in front of his teammates after fatally shooting his girlfriend. Months earlier, the Hall-of-Famer Junior Seau killed himself three years after retirement. They, like many other football players, showed symptoms of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. Signs of the disease are not exclusive to the sport (or to athletes). Last year, 12 former wrestlers filed a class-action suit against the WWE over the “long-term neurological injuries” they sustained as employees.
Such developments may dim, or at least complicate, the glow of triumph often promised to players in exchange for their bodily sacrifice. In his debut novel, Stephen Florida, Gabe Habash examines the dark side of this transaction through his eponymous character, an intensely competitive young wrestler at a college in North Dakota. Following Stephen through his last year in school, Habash questions not only the true cost of achieving athletic greatness, but also how masculinity—defined in part by vengefulness, violence, and stoicism—can drive men to behave in self-glorifying and self-defeating ways.
Stephen Florida begins in the aftermath of a struggle. “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them,” the narrator says, setting the stage for a story centered on competition and the toll of a fight for survival. Though its primary subject is wrestling, the book is more a study of the manifold ways men relate to each other. It reads a bit like Chad Harbach’s coming-of-age story The Art of Fielding invaded by the characters from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a novel obsessed with the absurd nature of manhood. But unlike Bolaño’s novel, Stephen Florida refuses to romanticize its male characters and their exploits, instead exposing the emptiness of their hunger for recognition. Where Harbach champions the camaraderie of a college-baseball team, Habash focuses on the individuality and isolation of a single wrestler.