The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir

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Surfing in Far Rockaway, romantic obsession, and Moby-Dick converge in this winning and refreshing memoir

Winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction

Justin Hocking lands in New York hopeful but adrift-he's jobless, unexpectedly overwhelmed and disoriented by the city, struggling with anxiety and obsession, and attempting to maintain a faltering long-distance relationship. As a man whose brand of therapy has always been motion, ...

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The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir

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Surfing in Far Rockaway, romantic obsession, and Moby-Dick converge in this winning and refreshing memoir

Winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction

Justin Hocking lands in New York hopeful but adrift-he's jobless, unexpectedly overwhelmed and disoriented by the city, struggling with anxiety and obsession, and attempting to maintain a faltering long-distance relationship. As a man whose brand of therapy has always been motion, whether in a skate park or on a snowdrift, Hocking needs an outlet for his restlessness. Then he spies his first New York surfer hauling a board to the subway, and its not long before he's a member of the vibrant and passionate surfing community at Far Rockaway. But in the wake of a traumatic robbery incident, the dark undercurrents of his ocean-obsession pull him further and further out on his own night sea journey.

With Moby-Dick as a touchstone, and interspersed with interludes on everything from the history of surfing to Scientology's naval ties to the environmental impact of the Iraq War, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a multifaceted and enduring modern odyssey from a memorable and whip-smart new literary voice.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"Melville-haunted, surfing-imbued, and wisdom-packed" is how one early reader typified this debut book; but make no mistake: Justin Hocking is no new millennium whaler; he is a Far Rockaway, Queens wave-rider and skateboarder who adjusted to his metropolis home in unconventional, yet remarkably successful ways. A graceful, insightful, candid and charming coming-of-age story unlike any other. Editor's recommendation.

From the Publisher

"Hocking is earnest and candid, and he writes well about nature. . . . Invigorating." —The New York Times Book Review
"In this appealing memoir, the young author finds salvation from a dead-end Manhattan office job in an activity not often associated with New York: surfing. . . . The passages about surfing and the relationships it fosters are filled with excitement and tenderness. It's hard not to cheer for [Hocking]." —The New Yorker
"With nearly pitch-perfect tone, Hocking impressively builds [The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld] around a series of tension-and-release vignettes that roll through the narrative like waves. . . . Hocking's journey will prove relevant and immediate in its exploration of maturation and experiencing both spiritual collapse and, eventually, renewal." —The Boston Globe
"Hocking doesn’t dwell on his misfortunes, or cast himself as the hero. Instead, Wonderworld focuses on a more common, less headline-catching narrative: the small, lovely, but difficult, ways human beings heal in a world rife with mistakes and misjudgments, wrongdoing and despair. . . . [The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is] reflective and honest, with charm and just the right amount of innocence." —Los Angeles Review of Books
"In this elegant hybrid of homage to Melville and memoir, Hocking examines timeless archetypes and questions their pertinence in his own life. . . . His admiration for Melville's opus does not prevent him from telling a compelling story of his own." —Library Journal, starred review
"Through stylistic understatement and perfect tonal pitch. . . . Hocking ultimately transcends 'the dark Ahab force.'" —Kirkus, starred review 
"Melville called Ishmael a 'dreamy, meditative man.' So is Justin Hocking. From his modern masthead, he sees a capacious and generous world, one he brings to life in this erudite and introspective memoir." —Shelf Awareness
"The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is one of the most satisfying memoirs I have read in years, a book both moving and sagaciously written." —Largehearted Boy
“This beautiful memoir is beyond cool. A voyage both erudite and affecting.” —Junot Díaz, author of This Is How You Lose Her
"As generous as it is smart, as intimate as it is grand, as illuminating as it is dark. With grace and guts, Justin Hocking dares to go where few men have gone before: not only out to sea, but also into the depths of the human heart." —Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
"Melville-haunted, surfing-imbued, and wisdom-packed, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a lucid and moving memoir. Hocking's laid-back erudition and narrative generosity take us by the hand down a winding path at the end of which lies a new openness to the world's wonder." —Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City
"The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is transcendent. Justin Hocking explores what it means to be a skateboarder, a surfer, and a writer, and he lays bare the pains and joys of each, the surprising ways the endeavors mirror one another. The book is thrilling in its structure and moving in its emotion and conviction. The chapters roll like waves, carrying you along and breaking over you, washing you in revelation after revelation." —Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This
"Searching, gutsy, and vulnerable, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a deeply felt account of a young man's aching coast-to-coast search for an emotional home in the world. The settings and quasi-romances couldn't feel more contemporary—anti-depressants and underground New York skateparks, sleeping pills and cold water surf breaks in the Pacific Northwest. But the journey couldn't be more universal, painful, and worthwhile." —Daniel Duane, author of Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast
"This nightshade journey reflects on the inner Ahab inside all of us. . . . Melvillian arcana abounds, leading to a profound journey into Moby-Dick's infinitude of meanings, mixed with inopportune break dancing, a harrowing carjacking, and a meditation on the redemptive power of skateboarding and surfing, the allure of waves and the sea, and life itself." —Jocko Weyland, author of The Answer Is Never

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-05
Through stylistic understatement and perfect tonal pitch, this memoir somehow achieves its outlandish ambitions. In lesser hands, a narrative steeped in obsessions with Moby-Dick and surfing and skateboarding would strain to make connections, especially when it's also a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage memoir by a 30-something author who has trouble letting go of or committing to anything while recognizing that he should have grown up long ago. An avid skateboarder in Colorado with a graduate degree that lets him teach creative writing at the university level, Hocking (co-editor: Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, 2004) gave it all up, along with a fulfilling romantic relationship, to move to New York for…what? He took a job delivering food and another reading manuscripts for rejection. He worked on a novel that was "basically going nowhere." Incongruously enough, he discovered surfing, which offered a natural progression from his passion for skateboarding: "Like the majority of actual New York residents, I had no idea surfing was even possible here. Could you really ride the subway to the beach? If so, could you surf in the morning and hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same afternoon?" Thus New York allowed Hocking to develop a passion for surfing, which shared an ocean with his longtime obsession with Melville (whose paths through the city he retraced) and what appears to be an obsession with himself and with romance, coupled with an ambivalence toward commitment—to anything. "You know, you talk about loving everyone all the time like you're some sort of enlightened being," said the girlfriend over whom his obsession deepened after they split. "But the only reason you love anyone is to make yourself feel better." Therapy, 12-step programs, a nervous breakdown, spiritual crisis and renewal, friends, career and geographical change, and some life-threatening experiences helped transform the author and deepen his appreciation of Moby-Dick. In a book that's likely far richer than the novel he shelved, Hocking ultimately transcends "the dark Ahab force."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976699
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 2/11/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 569,258
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Justin Hocking is an avid surfer and skateboarder. He edited Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Thrasher, and The Normal School. He is the executive director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Justin Hocking, Author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld

From the title of your memoir, it's clear that Moby-Dick is a personal obsession. What is it about the book that fascinates you so much?

My true obsession began after discovering a critical comparison of Moby-Dick with psychologist Carl Jung's concept of the "nekyia," or "night sea journey." Another term for this is the "dark night of the soul." Moby-Dick is ultimately a very dark and tragic journey, but the main character, Ishmael, emerges as the lone survivor—he is basically reborn from the wreckage. That particular image—and the idea of Moby-Dick as an archetypal guidebook for surviving life's dark transitions and traumas—really stuck with me. My obsession became much more visceral and immediate in the aftermath of a traumatic robbery incident in 2006. I was living in New York City at the time, and started spending more and more time surfing out at Rockaway Beach, taking some dangerous risks, paddling out by myself way past sunset. I was in a precarious emotional state and making reckless decisions, which, as I learned, can have serious repercussions when you're dealing with a force as powerful as the ocean. Looking back, I realize I was in the midst of my own night sea journey. I had lost my life's narrative, to paraphrase Joan Didion in The White Album. So, more than just an obsession, Moby-Dick was like a narrative life raft for me during that period.

Beyond the personal, I love that Moby-Dick speaks to us on so many levels: political, environmental, metaphysical, philosophical, etc. Melville wrote it as the country was careening toward civil war. As scholar Nathanial Philbrick claims, Moby-Dick is an important book to consider as we strive to live up to the ideals set forth in our constitution, especially in the face of any number of looming catastrophes. Ahab and his crew on the Pequod represent what Ishmael calls "the all-grasping west;" they set sail at the beginning of a new era of corporate exploitation, when the concept of the sacred was superseded by an endless quest for resource extraction. Whaling was primarily about oil; whale oil lit the world and greased the gears of the industrial revolution. It was the original "Big Oil" industry. I felt that we missed many of Moby-Dick's important lessons about hubris and its consequences during the Iraq war. We continue to miss them now, as we consider completing the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and as millions of tons of plastics—definitely a petroleum product—poison the sea. We're in the belly of oil, and Moby-Dick has something to teach us about our predicament.

What inspired the unique structure of your book?

The structure was inspired partly by my admiration for poetry and the lyric essay. From these genres I've come to appreciate narrative that's filled with gaps. Many poetry collections are staged in cycles—a slow accrual of resonating images and voices and stories—rather than in a strictly linear way, and I tried to replicate this to a certain degree in memoir form.
I was also inspired by an idea that Jonathan Lethem discusses in The Ecstasy Of Influence, which is that, rather than an "emptying out" process, finding one's voice as a writer is more about fully embracing and acknowledging multiple sources of influence and inspiration. David Shields is another big proponent of literary collage and hip hop-inspired "sampling" that I find pretty thrilling. So, of course, the central influence for The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld was Moby-Dick. I tried not to simply ape Melville, but I did allow myself to feel liberated by what I found in Moby-Dick, which is that all things are admissible within the bounds of a single book: memoir, history, literary criticism, environmental writing, sports/adventure writing, humor, taxonomy and listing, stagecraft, etc. Moby-Dick is such an epic, polyphonic masterpiece, and it was exciting to let myself just riff off a classic work, employing multiple voices and modalities and digressions. The structure of Moby-Dick is comprised of a series of "dives" and "breaches": at times it dives deeply into the human soul, while other times it breaches the surface and expands infinitely outward, to expound on the intricacies of the whaling industry, the anatomy of the whale, cosmology, even a kind of early food writing in the "Chowder" chapter. So, interspersed with dives into my own deeply personal story, I also tried to expand way beyond myself by incorporating stories about my seafaring uncle, the history of surfing, ocean ecology, Jean Michel Basquiat's own appropriations of Melville's work, etc. I didn't want to tell a straightforward, linear story; I wanted to "tell it slant," so to speak. And I wanted it to be about much more than just myself, although my "nekyia" is what I hope gives the narrative its larger emotional arc.

What was it like learning to surf while you were living in NYC? Is there a large surfing community in the NYC area? What was it like to surf alongside skateboarding legend Andy Kessler?

I grew up in Colorado and California, and spent summers in Oregon during my twenties, so moving to New York City at age thirty was a shock to the system. I will always have a fierce love for that city, but the lack of open space induced a real sense of claustrophobia, especially at first. So discovering a place like Rockaway Beach, in Queens, was a kind of revelation. Just the fact that a designated surfing beach exists within New York City limits—and that it's accessible by subway—is still amazing to me. It was the one place in the city where I felt like I could breath, and where I could grasp a literal and metaphorical horizon. The waves are fairly manageable on a typical summer day, so it was a good place to learn. And the Rockaway surf community is intriguingly diverse—it's not unusual to find Wall Street executives trading waves with kids from the projects.

I struggled as a writer in New York; there were times when I felt like the city was stripping me of everything—money, self-confidence. But now, having had some time and distance, I realize how many gifts New York gave me. One of the biggest was meeting Andy Kessler. Andy started skateboarding back in the 70s, before I was even born; he was a true east coast legend, on par with Jay Adams and the Dogtown crew in L.A. Given his background, he had a pretty raw, street-sharpened personality. But he was also one of the most purely authentic and generous people I've ever met. I spent quite a few weekends surfing with him out at Montauk, a place both of us loved, and the place where he eventually passed away, in 2009. Those surf sessions with Andy were honestly some of the best times of my life. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is dedicated to him.

We've just passed the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Far Rockaway region that features so prominently in Great Floodgates. Have you been back to the region post-Sandy? How do you feel the hurricane impacted that region's surfing community in particular?

The last time I visited Rockaway was just a few months before Sandy. So much new construction and development was happening then. I wasn't able to make it back after the hurricane, although I did try to help with fundraising efforts via an article on The Rumpus. I don't think the storm had much of an impact on the surfing community, other than some surfers whose homes were flooded, which is no small thing. But you have to understand that Far Rockaway is lined with dozens and dozens of large housing projects and low-income buildings. Thousands of vulnerable people live there; they were by far the most affected. Surfers did play a small but significant part in the recovery—the New York City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation was highly involved. There was also the story of a young surfer named Dylan Smith, who, on the night of the storm, helped rescue six people using an improvised rope bridge and his surfboard.

How does your pursuit of extreme sports like surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding affect your writing?

On the most basic level, skating and surfing are deeply physical pursuits that keep me located in my body. I'm definitely captivated by intellectual lines of inquiry, but as a writer who also surfs and skates, I only have so much patience for the purely cerebral. I'm always trying to bring things back to the body—to descriptions of sensory and kinetic experience, motion and flow, concrete and skin.

On the other hand, I find that the term "extreme," connotes a form of adrenaline seeking. And to be honest, I don't really like adrenaline. When I show up at a place like Burnside skatepark or a new surf break, my initial reaction is often one of pretty deep discomfort and fear. Some people enjoy that, but my body doesn't process it very well—it's almost like I have an adrenaline allergy. So the ritual actions of skating and surfing are a way for me to mitigate that anxiety, to move through the initial adrenalin rush, and hopefully to reach something more sustaining and centered—a peak flow experience where you have a sense of being out of time, deeply focused and connected. I generally score pretty low on the bravado scale, but moving through this process over and over helped me build the courage to become a writer, which, when you think about it, is just about as perilous a choice as dropping in to a thirteen-foot bowl or paddling out in overhead waves. You put yourself at considerable emotional and financial risk, and there's absolutely no guarantee you'll make it. My fellow skater/writer Bret Anthony Johnston puts it this way: learning a single skate trick involves literally hundreds of failed attempts and a lot of time on the hard cement; the writing process requires a similar kind of obsessive persistence and willingness to pay some painful dues.

But I don't mean to paint a gloomy picture of these activities I love. The truth is that there's so much joy in all of them; that's what keeps us coming back. Beyond the fear factor, skateboarding and surfing are purely creative pursuits that, when practiced well, feel more like improvisational art forms than organized sports. There are generally no teams competing against one another, but there are strong and lasting communities. Especially with surfing, there's a kind of alchemical bonding process that happens between friends out in the ocean. Similarly, the process of writing Wonderworld, and then the opportunity to work and connect with the amazing community at Graywolf Press, has been one of the best experiences of my professional life.

Can you tell us some about the Independent Publishing Resource Center, which you head?

The IPRC is a magical place; I'm so honored to have been a part of it for nearly a decade now. The Center's mission is to empower individuals to publish their own creative work by providing them with access to printing equipment, technology, education and resources. We have a huge new physical location in Portland, Oregon, with nearly 4,000 square feet of public workspace, including a traditional letterpress studio, a screenprinting studio, a computer lab with five new iMacs, photocopiers, two classrooms, and one of the nation's largest zine and small press libraries. Anyone is welcome to join the Center and our vibrant community of writers, self-publishers, comics artists, and zinesters. The publishing industry is changing so rapidly, and the IPRC is at the forefront of an increasing intersection of visual art, books arts, and graphic design with literary pursuits. Every day I see members creating exquisite, handcrafted books, zines and comics; more than just publications, they're true art objects. I'm also excited to see quite a bit of cross-pollination of traditional and digital publishing, thanks to the IPRC's regular e-book workshops and Adobe software.

The aspect of the IPRC that's closest to my heart is our yearlong Certificate Program in Creative Writing and Independent Publishing, which I co-founded five years ago with the talented writer A.M. O'Malley. The Certificate Program is an inexpensive alternative to a traditional MFA; we offer a unique combination of graduate-level writing workshops with hands-on publishing and printing intensives, with optional college credit available via the University of Oregon. To serve people outside of Portland, we're also launching a low-residency version of the Certificate Program in late summer 2014; more information is available at
Other than Moby-Dick, what are some of your favorite books that inspired you to write?

One of my major inspirational and aesthetic touchstones was Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. I'm attracted to writers who have themselves plunged into the metaphorical abyss, then emerged humbled but whole, and who can artfully recreate the experience in a way that brings the reader in very close, but also provides a little respectful breathing room. I'm thinking here of Lit by Mary Karr, Wild by Cheryl Strayed [Winner of the 2012 Discover Award (nonfiction). -Ed], Jesus' Son by Dennis Johnson, The Blessing by Gregory Orr, Half a Life by Darrin Strauss, The Aderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot, Oh the Glory of it All by Sean Wilsey. I also love adventure and wilderness books: Caught Inside by Daniel Duane; Into the Wild and Into Thin Air by Krakauer. And anything by Rebecca Solnit.

Who have you discovered lately?

I'm grateful to live in Portland, where there are so many excellent writers, and where the scene feels highly accessible and tight knit. I just read Kevin Sampsell's gift of an essay, "I'm Jumping Off the Bridge," from, now anthologized in The Best American Essays 2013. I'm inspired by my coworker A.M. O'Malley's cross-genre experimentation; she's working on a hybrid memoir that's definitely one to watch for. I'm equally enthusiastic about Aaron Gilbreath's book-in-progress about the topic of crowding. And many of our current and former IPRC Certificate Program students are doing amazing work. While finishing te Program, the writer Michael Heald launched a small but ambitious company called Perfect Day Publishing, and later published a very smart and vulnerable collection of essays entitled Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension.

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