Stephen Florida is a genuinely good book. It’s funny, and strange, and compelling. It looks at the obscure world of North Dakota college wrestling. Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement is the way he describes wrestling matches: not by showing off all the research he did on the correct terminology, not by tediously compiling a list of I did this‘s and he did that‘s, but by describing key moments in each match through surreal and unexpected imagery. Some of my favourites include “I push his far shoulder like I’m crowbarring open Tut’s tomb or I’m Lazarus moving aside the rock for the big reunion”, “I kneel down and get him onto my shoulders like a baby lamb, he’s a baby lamb now”, and “I’m right behind like the devoted husband for the water birth”.
However. Past the first two or three electrifying chapters, I spent most of my time reading this novel unable to ignore the nagging thought that my time would be better spent reading something else. That, accomplished as this book is, it doesn’t do much that is new. That it’s yet another story about a quirky white guy doing quirky white guy things and thinking quirky (and yet occasionally profound) thoughts about his place in the universe as a quirky white guy. Just like so many Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch characters, so many Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes characters, just like Napoleon Dynamite, and then as far back as Holden Caulfield, and probably farther back still to, I don’t know, probably Zeno Cosini or even Tristram Shandy. Sure, the book does upend a few tropes/expectations–most notably, Stephen’s problematically trophy-like love interest does turn out to have her own agency and leave the story in pursuit of her own ambitions, actually explicitly telling him “I don’t just go along with your story as, like a prize”. All the same–about 75-80% of this book is strongly reminiscent of so many other quirky white guy stories I’ve consumed over the years. And I’m not sure we need more of them.
There’s also the fact that one of the key reasons why I read books is to escape the limitations of my perspective as a (cis straightish) white guy, and of my life as a white guy, and encounter different ways of thinking and experiencing the world. So much pop culture wants to persuade me that my perspective is “normal” and “universal”, that I find it important to remind myself that this is not the case, and a key way of doing this is to read books (and watch films, and play games, etc.) that follow the stories of women, queer people, and people of colour. So, really, I shouldn’t even have picked up this book, no matter how glowing the reviews may be. (And the reviews are glowing–out of eight in major publications, there are five raves, two positives, and one mixed, according to LitHub’s BookMarks, the Rotten Tomatoes of books.)
Overall, then–I’m not sure what to say! I can’t deny that this is a good book, and it would feel weird not to recommend it. At the same time, I don’t think it does much that’s new or interesting. Even the best thing about the book, the weird imagery Habash weaves into his prose–Patricia Lockwood does it better in her amazing memoir of being raised by a heavy metal Catholic priest, Priestdaddy. And, from my personal perspective, I realised as I was reading it that it’s not the sort of book I want to read right now, but it was too late to stop. Though who knows, I might decide to read it again in a few years’ time and completely reevaluate it.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.