A college wrestler is driven to win, to the detriment of his mental health.
The captivating narrator of Habash’s debut novel is a sinewy senior at a small North Dakota college on a last-ditch effort to win the Division IV championship in his weight class. To do so, he takes easy-A classes (“Drawing II, Meteorology I, Basic News Writing, and What Is Nothing?”) and works out like a fiend (“I’m skin and gristle and little water”). But it’s clear early on that something is off. He mentions his childhood as an orphan only to deny its impact, and his macho rhetoric takes bizarre turns: “It’s my job to make other people upset and sad,” “Everything outside of wrestling is devoid of mystery and deep faith,” “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” In short, Stephen is a classic unreliable narrator, which makes him as fascinating to experience—Habash plainly glories in his hero’s digressions and non sequiturs—as he is difficult to root for. He’s a bully with opponents, alienating with his teammates, and clumsy in a budding relationship. Once a meniscus tear threatens to keep him out of competition, his angry, obsessive nature (“I gargle discontent”) drives him to investigate dark rumors about coaches and teachers. That’s a canny provocation to the reader: recognize he’s unhinged or respect his sense of justice? Either way, Habash writes about the raw physicality of wrestling better than anybody this side of John Irving (“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”), and though the story is overlong given Stephen’s straightforward trajectory, the novel’s grim, intense mood is admirably sustained. For this well-intentioned but troubled man, every victory is a pyrrhic one.
A lively, occasionally harrowing journey into obsession.