Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: "The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld" by Justin Hocking


Having just finished Justin Hocking's memoir about his obsession with surfing and Moby Dick, and his struggles to find direction in his life and overcome his addiction to being in relationships, I feel much like I'd imagine one does after a good round of surfing—breathless and exhilarated, simultaneously.

Justin Hocking was a West Coast kid, outdoorsy, constantly obsessed with motion, an obsession he fed first through break dancing and finally through skateboarding. He became obsessed with Herman Melville's classic novel and really felt it spoke to him, both about his own struggles and the struggles of the world around him. He did painstaking research into Melville's life and career, and read everything he could get his hands on that has been written about the book. (He also has a list of others obsessed with the book, including Jackson Pollock and Laurie Anderson.)

When Hocking moved to New York, he was struggling with the inevitable end of a long-distance relationship and trying to figure out what to do with his life when he spotted someone on the subway holding a surfboard. Shortly thereafter he became obsessed with surfing anywhere and anytime he could, and found himself among a rapidly growing circle of friends who all shared the same love for the sport and the feelings it provoked. As his life grew more and more chaotic and confusing, Hocking could only find peace amidst the waves.

But surfing wasn't enough to make him content. As he started to wonder whether he'd ever find true love, and then began realizing that perhaps he had problems with being in romantic relationships, his life became more emotionally anguished. And on top of that, he grew increasingly unhappy with his job and with much of the culture of New York City, yet found himself incapable of making a decision whether to move to Portland, Oregon, or stay in New York, where he can surf whenever he wants to. On a visit to his family, a violent encounter throws him even more in turmoil, and he equates his struggles and the feelings they cause with those of Captain Ahab.

This is a meticulously researched, emotionally poignant, fascinating, and sometimes humorous book, populated with a tremendously memorable and endearing cast of characters. While at times the book veers off into strange tangents involving Hocking's family (in an effort to illustrate that his obsession with the water may very well be genetic), and he does rant a bit about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, I was completely compelled by Hocking's memoir. Considering I know nothing about surfing or skateboarding, and have only read Moby Dick once, I was surprised how utterly hooked I was by this book. I think Hocking would be a fascinating person to talk with, and I would love to watch some of the people he wrote with, even from afar, just to see if their reality matched what I saw in my head.

I don't read a lot of memoirs; it takes a compelling subject and a talented writer to reel me in. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld succeeds in both categories. It's unlike anything I've read, which means it will stay in my head even more than it would on its literary merits alone.

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