Coffee House Press
Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she saw and heard the author do a reading at the Boston Book Festival in October, and she was impressed by his writing and presentation. She was intrigued by the story of a college wrestler that is obsessed with winning the championship, and the process of his unraveling. Ms. Hen’s favorite novels are about unstable young women, but she is willing to give unstable men a chance, too, sometimes.
Stephen Florida is a wrestler at the 133 pound slot in Oresburg College in rural North Dakota. Ms. Hen learned at the reading that the author didn’t have any personal experience with wrestling, and he had never been to North Dakota. Ms. Hen thinks that it is impressive to write an entire novel that takes place somewhere an author has never been, and about a subject that is not his specialty.
Stephen Florida wants to win the Division IV NCAA Championship in the 133 weight class. He is determined to win, and it drives his every move. He skates through his classes, not applying himself, scraping by just to stay in school. In wrestling, a lot of men have to struggle to keep their exact weight, and at times have an eating disorder to the point where they are neurotic about food. Stephen is like this. He has a good friend Linus, who wrestles at the 125 weight class, and they are both at the top of their game.
Stephen meets a girl, Mary Beth, and starts dating her. She works just as hard as he does; she wants to work at an art gallery, and is quirky like him. She doesn’t know if she wants to be with him, and she can’t decide. He struggles with everything, and starts to unravel during winter break, which he spends alone at the college.
Ms. Hen thinks this book has an odor to it. It could be the smell of men wrestling, or the excessive description of flatulence. Ms. Hen has had the privilege to read two books in a row (also the novel EILEEN) in which the character describes their bowel movements in minute detail. Ms. Hen doesn’t think reading about this is pleasant, but it portrays the truth about the character, and what is important to that person.
The writing in STEPHEN FLORIDA is exquisite. Ms. Hen thinks that the descriptions of the breakdowns that Stephen has are expertly rendered. Ms. Hen had the idea that this novel could be a type of MOBY DICK story, but she wasn’t sure how it would turn out in the end. Ms. Hen thought that the wrestling championship could be Stephen Florida’s great white whale, the one thing he desires in the world that destroys him, but she will not reveal the end. She thinks everyone should read this novel.
Ms. Hen noticed there are some chickens in this novel, which made her happy. Stephen eats a lot of chicken, “ ‘Stephen gets an extra piece of chicken for breaking that kid’s arm.’ “ And also, at the end of the novel, during the championship match, “I eat the chicken dinner and blank out my entire history.”
Ms. Hen thinks that STEPHEN FLORIDA is a beautiful novel. It’s about a young man who starts to come undone, who wants one thing, and it practically drives him insane, not quite, but nearly. Ms. Hen was dazzled by this novel, and if you like excellent writing, and anguished, complicated characters, you will be too.