Apr 9 2014

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld by Justin Hocking

Aviel Kanter

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The "leaving New York" essay has become its own mini-genre. Joan Didion's 1967 elegy to her time in the city, "Goodbye to All That," was the pioneer of the form. In a 2013 collection named after Didion's piece, twenty-eight writers also share how New York lost its luster. This year, Justin Hocking's new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, takes up the tradition, with another look at the ways in which the young and sort-of-young work out a relationship with their "suffocating, selfish mistress," as Andrew Sullivan has called the city.

Just after turning thirty, Hocking, a self-proclaimed "pickup-truck-driving country boy," left Colorado, and his beautiful skater girlfriend, to move to Brooklyn. He had a modest publishing deal for his anthology, Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, and no job prospects. The subsequent three years Hocking spends in New York—three years of anxious self-discovery—are at the heart of The Great Floodgates. The book's capsule description—"skater/surfer with an MFA ruminates on loneliness and Moby-Dick"—suggests someone trying too hard to be profound. Yet Hocking's tone is reassuringly down-to-earth. The frequent references to Melville, which might have been tedious in another writer, in his hands feel unpretentious, and helpfully bind together the book's nonlinear vignettes.

Hocking succumbs to "The White Death"—"an all-consuming obsession with the novel Moby-Dick"—in graduate school, and the "disease," as he calls it, manifests in every facet of his life, Moby-Dick acting as a kind of Holy Grail to which he turns for spiritual guidance. When he takes a job delivering Indian food out of the backseat of his truck, Hocking "read and reread the section . . . where Ishmael talks about making the transition from schoolmaster to sailor." While trying to deal with his "constant, low-level home-sickness and insecurity," he goes to the Unitarian church where Melville and his family were members. After a traumatic carjacking during a trip to Denver, he encounters what he calls his "inner Ahab," the "dark, masculine, reckless force that pilots so much of the world's treachery."

The more compelling parts of the memoir, however, lie in Hocking's depiction of coming to (and later leaving) New York. On his first ride on the L train, he has a veritable panic attack during the four-minute journey under the East River, sure he is going to "completely blow apart." Hocking articulates with clarity the terror and exultation New York can cause in the hearts of the newly transplanted, for whom even the smallest task—getting from one place to another—can bring an onslaught of anxiety. In one passage, Hocking reflects on the image of Basquiat's New York City skyline surfer. The euphoric early stages of living in New York, he notes, feel much like riding the peak of a wave. The exhilaration is fundamentally transient: the wave will inevitably break.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is one person's exercise in learning what he can and cannot deal with, what he is and isn't willing to give up (namely his sanity) for the sake of living in a difficult city, an exercise most New Yorkers face daily. "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends," Didion writes. It takes Hocking the length of the memoir to get past all his beginnings: To let go of his failed relationships, to leave his dead-end publishing job, and, finally, to abandon the place that has proved toxic. In Portland, his new home, things change. He excels at his new job, falls in love with a beautiful yoga teacher, and sheds his compulsions. He moves into a bungalow with a "temple room." Hocking claims a rebirth through darkness, prompted by a near drowning experience while surfing, but the rebirth is too complete. Good for him, not so good for us: the Hocking we find on the West Coast is less compelling than the troubled Ahab in the East.

Aviel Kanter is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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