Book Review: Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

4.5/5 Stars.

After reading several lackluster books recently about college-age protagonists meandering through life, I’ve come to the conclusion that I only really enjoy these kinds of stories when the characters have a truly distinct voice.

In walks Stephen Florida.

This book is absolutely mesmerizing and unlike anything I’ve ever read. And yet it’s not the kind of book I would recommend to just anyone. Stephen is one of the strangest and most disturbing characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. He has just recently begun his senior season on the college wrestling team and he is obsessively focused on one thing and one thing only: winning.

As his season progresses and he pursues his quest for greatness, Stephen’s mind spirals further off the deep end and his narration becomes more unreliable. This is a guy who’s a bit of a sociopath to begin with, so that’s saying something. Stephen’s the kind of character who says things like: “Sometimes I wonder, if I were a character in a book, would I be sympathetic? Would I make a good good guy?”

The answer is, he is strangely sympathetic in spite of himself. Beneath Stephen’s singular focus on wrestling is an undercurrent of grief and a desperate longing for control and meaning by any means necessary.

There’s a pervasive sense of menace throughout as Stephen loses his grip on reality—an uncanniness that Habash writes with perfect subtlety.

Nothing I write here will adequately convey just how bizarre and unsettling this debut novel is. At times I was reminded of the strange protagonist in Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry for Disrupting the Peace and the vague sense of foreboding in Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m hesitant to recommend Stephen Florida to just anyone, but I imagine it will have a dedicated cult following among other weirdos like me who live for these kinds of characters.

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