In most cases, “Moby-Dick’’ and surfing would be viewed as strange bedfellows, but in Justin Hocking’s “The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld,” they amiably share space on the page, serving as the primary motifs of the author’s potent coming-of-age memoir.
As a 30-something adrift after editing an anthology about skateboarding (one of the author’s primary passions) and shelving a long-percolating novel, Hocking pulls stakes in Colorado and heads for New York, determined to make it as a freelance editor or another similar position in the publishing industry.
Unable to make ends meet with his freelance gigs, he accepts a job delivering Indian food, all the while continuing to reread and ponder the “dark Ahab force” at the heart of Herman Melville’s masterpiece.
“Not lost on me is the fact that I’m over thirty and have a master’s degree — and that I’d spent the last year as a university instructor — but now here I am delivering samosas and saag, the pungent smell of fried ghee seeping into my truck’s upholstery,” he writes.
Thus begins Hocking’s journey, a roughly five-year odyssey in which he matures in fits and starts, grappling with depression and an inability to truly commit, both personally and professionally. Woven throughout the autobiographical details — not always chronological — are asides about surfing, Melville, and environmental concerns, and the author handles the transitions well, lyrically tying the narrative elements together in a way that never feels forced.
Though intellectually unsatisfying, his odd-job-and-freelancing setup allows him to meet new friends, many of whom share his love of skateboarding. They eventually introduce him to the joys of surfing on Long Island beaches.
His obsession with surfing, and the sea in general, grows in tandem with his obsession with “Moby-Dick’’ and its “central image,” that of “Ishmael the orphan, floating on his coffin life buoy, having survived the darkest work imaginable — having been reborn from death to new life in the wake of catastrophe.”
Throughout Hocking’s book, he experiences a series of rebirths, in the form of new relationships, improved job prospects, and an all-consuming hobby, but each time he seems to discover contentment, dark thoughts crowded in, paralyzing him and often jeopardizing his personal and professional relationships.
Surfing, Melville, and the study and research of both, seem to be the only motivations for living.
Eventually, the solace of 12-step and other therapy programs allow him to endure his mental and spiritual collapses, and while he can’t fully empathize with the plights of the alcoholics and addicts with whom he shares his stories, the catharsis of the sessions proves to be critical to his mental health.
With nearly pitch-perfect tone, Hocking impressively builds the book around a series of tension-and-release vignettes that roll through the narrative like waves, punctuated with analysis of “Moby-Dick’’ and both his personal history and that of the pursuit of surfing.
One chapter, “The White Dead,” includes a list of significant historical and literary figures who have harbored a preoccupation with Melville’s book, including David Foster Wallace, Jackson Pollock, Tony Kushner, Orson Welles, and Hart Crane.
After much deliberation and yet another nervous breakdown, Hocking moves to Portland, Ore., accepting a job teaching creative writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center.
Finally grasping peace, he is able to look back on his time in New York with fresh eyes and sincere appreciation. “I realize . . . what I had back in New York,” he writes, “that however much it took from me in terms of money and sanity, what it gave me in friendship and experience is irreplaceable, and I feel an overpowering sense of gratitude for the city that both ruined and saved my life.”
It’s a sentiment that will be familiar to many writers and other artists who live for a few years in New York, and Hocking’s journey will prove relevant and immediate in its exploration of maturation and experiencing both spiritual collapse and, eventually, renewal.
Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.