Lit

Review: Stephen Florida Isn’t the Pride Month Read You Were Hoping for

stephen florida, gabe habash, coffee house pressGuest author Evan Bryson studied painting and writing in Indiana. He lives in Chicago and works in higher ed.

Stephen Florida is a real goddam puzzler. I read it everywhere, wrestling with the thing, trying to make my peace with it. There’s a beautiful bobcat on its cover holding the shreds of a rabbit, sharp talons, terrible sad eyes. You want to tame it, and love it, and also let it be what it is—unknowable and wild. I did not enjoy reading this book, but I found myself transfixed, nonetheless, by its toxic intensity. I brought it to the gym and downed 30 pages on the elliptical, huffing, sweating, assuming a spiritual kinship with its hero. The novel is a litany and elision and effusion of abuse: when you think Stephen won’t act stupid and cruel, oh, he will act stupid and cruel, and will goad others to act similarly.

It’s telling that both Hanya Yanagihara and Garth Greenwell, authors of two of the most popular and most miserable gay novels of this century, blurbed Gabe Habash’s debut. Like the character Jude in A Little Life and the unnamed narrator in What Belongs to You, Habash’s eponymous narrator is articulate, eccentric, and exquisitely damaged. He’s an orphan, and also a maniac about college wrestling. If, at 22, he’s as articulate as Jude or Greenwell’s proxy, that’s because he “distracts” himself with “Barron’s SAT Vocabulary book, guaranteed to boost your Verbal score one hundred points on test day.” (Yes, it’s confusing why a college senior is still pouring over SAT test-prep materials.) As unreliable narrators go, Stephen also owes a debt to Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (pointillist fixation, body horror), with the emotional bottlenecking of Charlie from teen weepy The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Habash rather gilds this literariness during a suicide reverie spanning the book’s overlong middle, wherein he underscores Stephen’s little vacation from reality by his purchase of Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And like Charlie from Chbosky’s novel, Stephen accidentally witnesses some same-sex intercourse, really goes in for poetry, and has a troubling relationship with his aunt.

This pattern might predict the novel’s extraordinary hold on audiences—the authors above certainly found rapaciously devoted readers—but it also maps a saturation point, with pain, I think, pain overtaking the zeitgeist. Against what could be the formal maturity of Habash’s prose (its lyricism and allusions, the endless noodling at received descriptions of everyday experience by torquing them through Stephen’s damaged brain), his first-person narrator has an immature conscience. Stephen is a churlish animal. He is perverse, violent, and gambles with suffering to win suffering in dividends. His monomania for supremacy makes his angst outsized and inconsequential. As feckless creeps go, he’s high up there, as mostly everyone in the novel observes. One of his fall seminars asks “What is Nothing?” and a spring seminar covers “Unusual Disorders”; during his jazz class, he intercepts a message that reads: “That Stephen boy has a nice body but he’s such a big weird freak.” We’re with Stephen as he improvises between Nothing and Unusual. We’re with Stephen when he pees on some undergraduates heading to the same party. We’re with Stephen when he snaps his meniscus, and we’re with him when he betrays his best friend. The reader’s windfall, then, is also a kind of hollow suffering. This is a fairly dubious, fairly contestable prize.

The novel begins in his fourth year at Oregsburg College, in a snow-whipped tiny town in North Dakota. Stephen hasn’t made good on his promise to his dead grandma that he’ll make Division IV NCAA National Champion in the 133 weight class. And, while he is not particularly gay—he briefly lands an art major girlfriend (a sports fiction trope we must all retire)—Stephen Florida logs a clinical, perhaps pornographic interest in male anatomy and physicality. This text is larded with boners, bulges, and balls. It reproduces some actual erotica during a sinister interlude in an oil field. In the vein of Flannery O’Connor’s fragmentary descriptions of women, Stephen observes a woman whose “slacks are midway up her stomach [where] a menopausal bump pushes out the zipper area,” and a second time, toward the novel’s close: “Linus and Hargraves are stuck behind a menopausal woman, one that has an enormous, grotesque tush, the kind where it’s a gland thing, where she has to buy the special wide-seat pants all the time, the kind where she relies on vehicles and elevators because her body is malfunctional, she’s very short and her whole body looks like a garlic bulb.” Effluvia of all stripe, from blood to farts to “goat slime,” dot the book page by page.

Stephen’s fixation on bodies and what they void rings true. I grew up in a family of wrestlers, and the seasons were torturous, with my parents and me shifting our tastes to accommodate my brothers’ weight “control” programs. Fish sticks, iceberg lettuce, Crystal Lite, and tears. Everyone in the house so hungry, and so resentful, and so on edge about the weekend’s stupid tournament, the viciously seeded brackets. October through February were starving months—incidentally a period with major family holidays, and therefor sadistic surfeits of food.

Stephen’s warped attitude toward bodies is a logical response to the annual privations he subjects himself to for mastery of a single weight class. His attitude also serves to occlude the despair and disgust he feels about the waste of his parents’ deaths, a foundational trauma never exorcised. The nameless dread he feels about this waste assumes a shadowy presence throughout the novel. “The Frogman,” a nasty creature always waiting in the wings to abduct and suffocate him, is also the truth of his ambitions regards wrestling: if he wins a national title, he’ll have nothing to live for anymore, nothing anchoring him to the planet. He’s friendless, without family, without prospects, and too soon loose in a world that profoundly bores him.

There’s a depressing, and I think structurally problematic, statutory rape between a wrestler and a coach in the novel, developed in a few paragraphs, abandoned in a few pages. A beautiful and bizarre job-shadow chapter puts Stephen in the company of a man mystifyingly lonelier than himself, a man who might find succor in an athlete’s body. During a last practice with his best friend, Stephen names a kind of “sexual direction” overtaking his sense of their contact, a connection punished. These instances exemplify the limits of Stephen as our guide, and I think too the limits of Yanagihara and Greenwell’s modes of queer storytelling. I want to circle back to their blessings because this has become a standard in queer fiction over the last half-decade, and it’s perplexing. Why continue to write in the key of Gay Gothic, where meaning is wrested from homosexual experience only if that experience is miserable? Why supply Stephen a sterling albeit idiosyncratic intelligence (recall all that ridiculous SAT cramming), if he’s never allowed to reflect on these quietly explosive experiences? Habash has fully convinced me his anti-hero is a loon, but he’s also convinced me of his wisdom, and it’s disappointing—not tragic, not stylish, not necessary—that Stephen plays dumb on these matters.     

For all his existential posturing (“I go into my closet. For many hours, I meditate on failure.” “I can’t believe I used to be afraid of dying. What a relief that will be.” “I have good news and bad news! The bad news is that the abyss and the void are all the same thing and it is monumental and everywhere. The good news is you can lie still in your bed while the cursed and unskinned walk around in it and not feel a thing.”), Stephen may be that genuine thing—a character that knows so little of himself, and can attach so little meaning to the world and its inhabitants, that what connects his thoughts and actions are truly phonemes and orthography: ink on a page. He can think through vengeance, he can wend a conspiracy, but he won’t cum, and he definitely won’t examine same-sex attraction. I’ve seen this strategy before! In 1902. With the publication of dear Henry James’s short story “The Beast in the Jungle.”

A Little Life is famous for its timeless New York, a mythic city supernaturally untouched by time or circumstance. Oregsburg College occupies a similar timelessness. Stephen consults his library to decipher the poetic drippings of Berryman, Dickinson, and Blake. He listens to records. He sends letters via post. The presence of Stephen King novels playfully indicate a late ’70s/early ’80s frame of mind. But the queer morality and queer recognition of this text belongs to The Twilight Zone 1950s. Perhaps this novel is merely historical fiction and Habash has reproduced, with bracing fidelity, the cultural mores of a more closeted era? Great wrestling here, estimable Western landscaping, but a scandalously retrograde queer theme. For his unreliable but sensual narration, his dark and absorbing visions, his visceral and transporting sports glory—I believe readers will come to love Stephen Florida. This reader wants him to see a few “It Gets Better” videos on YouTube.

STEPHEN FLORIDA by Gabe Habash is published by Coffee House Press and available for purchase here.

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