Nothing comes close to the experience of reading The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, Justin Hocking’s memoir that weaves together his two obsessions – Moby-Dick and surfing or more appropriately “stoke stroke,” which infers the blissed-out-meditative-feeling that spending time moving with the ocean creates. The way Justin reveals his life experiences one at a time to show his transformation from a mind-and-body-must-always-be-in-motion man by cultivating stillness makes this book universally relatable. From his ambiguous attraction to other men to the dynamics of his dysfunctional family to getting robbed at gunpoint, Justin’s willingness to share his most formative experiences without letting Wonderworld become about those stories creates an intimacy with the reader that makes this book one that I only wanted to put down so I could savor the experience of reading it.
New York City might seem like an unlike setting for a memoir about a man who loves the outdoors. Beyond the skyscrapers and graffiti, Justin discovers Rockaway Beach where worries about paying credit card bills and the loneliness of moving to a new city falls away. The water is meditative, allowing him to live in the moment. He writes beautifully about the way nature exists in gritty places and I found myself reading whole paragraphs aloud, rereading phrases like “the skies are beautiful nonetheless, all tagged up with looping swirls of chemical pastels” and the “sand, a grain similar to that found in Florida or California, though more likely littered with chunks of concrete and brick, used syringes, spent .22 shells casings.” Just as the ocean and surfing provides a reprieve from city life for Justin, his writing about nature provides moments of light for the reader as Justin tackles difficult topics like co-dependency rehab and career woes.
Wonderworld’s greatest strength is the vulnerability and Justin’s willingness to lay it all out on the page. The book covers a lot of ground, which at times left me scratching my head at the end of a chapter, wondering how it related to the overall story. Justin has this way of engaging the reader by making readers work to link together seemingly incongruous topics and I developed a certain trust that I’d read further along and experience an “ah hah” moment when it all would come together.
I slowed down halfway through and although I wanted to get to the happy ending I anticipated for Justin, I hated the idea of saying good-bye to him. By then he felt like a good friend and reading about his surf sessions transported me from the icy world outside my own window into the watery wonder world.
These days Justin lives in Portland, Ore., where he surfs, writes, and teaches in the Wilderness Writing MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.