Let me say this right off the bat: Stephen Florida is a damn good book.
Stephen Florida is the most A of Type A personalities. He’s a competitive college wrestler with dreams of winning the division championship in his weight class.
To say he “dreams” of championship is an understatement, though. He wrestles with intensity and singular focus. Everything is wrestling and winning; it’s the axis around which his world revolves.
It’s evocative of other movies and books that show a person whose talent becomes an obsession. We see the person self-destruct as they spin deeper, almost messily into the obsession, but at the same time reach new heights in their craft.
The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke, directed by Darren Aronofsky, does this brilliantly. So does Black Swan with Natalie Portman, directed by Darren Aronofsky (I see a pattern here). And my favorite, Whiplash with Miles Teller, directed by Damien Chazelle.
All of these characters and Stephen Florida try half-heartedly, flailing and failing at life. At the same time, they get so good at their respective talents it’s almost like watching them fly when they’re in their element. The very thing that makes them great is the thing that will ultimately destroy them.
At the same time, Stephen Florida is just a kid.
He’s in the process of becoming a man with no real future and needs to shake off the damage of a horrible situation. Both of his parents are dead. Unfortunately, his only family to tether him to the world is an unreliable aunt.
In the absence of family, the only people who keep him moored are his friend Linus and girlfriend Mary Beth. When those relationships dissolve, mainly from Stephen retreating after an injury, Stephen dissolves, too. He’s left with nothing but obsession, obsession, obsession, and frustration since even his talent has left him for a time.
Life isn’t fun for him. His matter-of-fact remarks on it and suicidal ideation make clear his thoughts:
“Life and the human condition are the exact same thing and it makes no difference, the design is sadness, gravitational and old, except the few times it hiccups and it’s not.”
The urge to psychoanalyze Stephen and his aunt is strong.
Perhaps he is sociopathic. He has trouble with empathy and tact, impulsively shouting all of the dark insults we keep to ourselves, throwing punches for any offense. Perhaps his aunt has bipolar disorder, swinging between highs and lows in her phone calls.
But then again, some of the blunt and straightforward things Stephen Florida does result in the right thing happening (Fink). It’s difficult to know whether he has evil intentions and the right thing accidentally happens, or if he’s secretly benevolent even though he doesn’t want to admit it to himself, or if his existence is a series of impulse reactions with no heed to the results, both good and bad.
Part of appreciating this book is being able to appreciate a damaged, unlikable character. And boy does Stephen Florida fit that bill.
The big question is what comes next, depending on how you read the ending.