By Justin Hocking
Graywolf Press, 2014
Reviewed by Brenna Kischuk
In his memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, Justin Hocking moves to New York driven by big ideas and a propensity for motion. He quickly finds himself overwhelmed by obligations of city life and memories of relationships he left behind in Colorado. To find an outlet for his restlessness, he escapes from the claustrophobic city to the ocean surf of Far Rockaway and Ditch Plains.
Through surfing Hocking explores his growing 30-something crisis, spirituality, skateboarding, family history, even the environmental impacts of the Iraq War. His fascination with Moby-Dick further anchors his experience and though he jumps from one reference to another, he always ties his observations back to his personal journey. He skillfully acknowledges the unavoidable distance required to learn from the past without sacrificing intimacy and emotion.
Unfortunately, his seaside escapes provide only so much relief. Even with close friendships and the additional support of a twelve-step program for men struggling with relationship issues, he continues his descent. While surfing once provided a sure release, it becomes another unhealthy obsession that takes hold of his life.
Hocking keeps readers engaged by straying from tradition in chapters like “The L Train,” where the reader overhears a conversation between the subway’s automated voice and an anonymous female passenger. In both “Data. Assessment. Plan.” and “The Report” Hocking repurposes form and language from his former job as a counselor in a residential treatment center in order to express some of his darkest moments.
Moby-Dick continues to be a strong presence alongside Hocking, and his investigation extends into Jungian interpretations of the novel and a comparison to the underworld section of The Odyssey. Hocking’s obsessions always expand on rather than detract from his story, and by the end of the book we learn almost as much about Herman Melville as we do about Justin Hocking.
Early in the book a friend asks Hocking, “What is it about the descent thing that’s so intriguing to you?” and it is this provocative question that propels the book. The pages that follow examine how we look for something that embraces us fully, and how that search affects our lives. In a genre often oversaturated with writers offering familiar brands of experience and redemption, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld stands out for its unique blend of formal innovation, graceful prose, and unusual take on a familiar narrative.