JUSTIN HOCKING’S DEBUT memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, could have been about a young man who was robbed at gunpoint, losing the laptop that contained his novel (which he hadn’t backed up), and how the loss sends him into a near-suicidal depression; it could also have been about a surfer whose tumultuous relationships created a death wish, leading him first to the filthy seas of Rockaway Beach, and finally to the Oregon Coast, where he nearly drowns in a massive swell; or perhaps Mr. Hocking could have focused on his negative reactions to antidepressants, uncovering nasty truths about the health care system as he finds freedom in deep breathing and yoga.
But though these episodes are part of his story, 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.
Graywolf Press has a reputation for publishing non-sensationalist memoirs about everyday people that slowly hand-sell their way to wider audiences (its small tome of personal essays on bookstores by Lewis Buzbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, crept its way onto the bestseller lists of three different continents), and Wonderworld has that sort of feel and potential.
The book’s basic arc has the author living in New York, toiling in the romance department of an editorial house, and frustrated with assessing stories of love in the midst of his own relationship downfalls. He’s working on his novel on the side, but it’s not going well, and when his laptop is stolen while on a trip to Colorado to visit his sister, he has to face the facts: his novel is gone, and his literary career is going nowhere.
Hocking doesn’t delve deep into the tragic aspects of this encounter, presenting it instead as almost comical:
“Give me all your money,” [the thief] says, that old cinematic chestnut, and now here I am standing in the street, a revolver in my face, reaching into my pocket and pulling out all my money, which fortunately I have neatly folded into a faux-silver money clip, because it has occurred to me that in Brooklyn a money clip could be an advantage during a mugging, in that you can just slip out all your money without surrendering your ID and credit cards, thus avoiding hours of phone calls to all the banks and the DMV — yet now I’m testing out this strategy while I’m on vacation in Denver, of all places.
The repercussions, though, send Hocking into a period of shame and isolation as he faces the truth about his career. Eventually, he turns to therapy, a men’s group, a close reading of Moby Dick, and surfing as means to recovery. As a result of his willingness to open up to others, doors open up for him: eventually he finds a more rewarding job in a new city, and a relationship that he’s ready for.
The narrative, though, is subtly handled. Like a surfer on a wave about to close out, Hocking drops into descriptions of personal danger and disappointment, then quickly bails, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the carnage. He seems aware that his misfortunes aren’t catastrophic on a relative scale, admirably downplaying the loss of his novel and his girlfriend, a near-drowning, and bad reactions to antidepressants. He gives the reader just enough information to know that he’s wounded, and that if he doesn’t take action he’ll fall into a self-destructive darkness.
The bulk of the memoir focuses on the slow, tentative, and disjointed work Hocking does to heal himself. The result of this effort is unusually transformational — Wonderworld is a memoir that every man with an emotional wound, large or small, would benefit from reading.
Reflective and honest, with charm and just the right amount of innocence, Hocking shares snippets of time spent surfing at Rockaway Beach, conversations with the men in his Twelve Step Group (some of whom, it turns out, are also surfers), and entertaining tidbits about various literary and historical figures with strong relationships to the sea.
The reader can sense his love of the water — and it’s positive power on him — in the beauty of his descriptions:
[T]he wave folds into itself just behind me, while the silver-blue, sun-flecked lip keeps welling up in front of me, feathering white at the upper edge, the wind hollowing it out, holding it up like a crystal cavern wall — and I skim across it faster than I’ve ever surfed, my left fingers combing the surface, a long frothy wake tailing my board — until it curls and tumbles all over itself, rolls itself up like a long, bleached bale hay, then collapses.
It only lasts a few seconds, but still it’s a kind of peak flow experience, something I’ve experienced many times on a skateboard, where all sense of time drops away, inducing a sense of euphoria combined with intense focus. In this case, the experience is heightened by the ocean, by the fact that I’m in physical conversation with a reverberation of energy from a distant storm system.
But it isn’t just nature that renews and inspires him. Over the course of the memoir, Hocking begins to feel a kind of awe for the men in his group, and we can see how having the courage to expose his own foibles gives him access to unexpected role models:
[Kessler] has what can only be described as soul — a word that derives from the ancient Germanic, meaning “coming from or belonging to the sea.” It’s in his surfing and his skating for sure; it’s in the way he cruises casually through life; it’s especially in the way he treats other people, looks after his friends, takes care of so many recovering addicts with all their endless needs, cravings, complaints. He’s the kind of person you always want to be around; if he shows up for a session you know it’s going to be good. But good isn’t strong enough a word — surfing and skating with Kessler are transcendent, because, yes, you’re in the presence of physical greatness — of one of the most stylish skateboarders ever, a true originator of the rolling art form — but more than that, beyond the whole East Coast living legend thing, you’re also in the presence of an authentic heart.
In addition to surfing and working through his issues with friends, Hocking spends time reading and reflecting — engaging with stories of the sea as a kind of bibliotherapy. His great obsession is with Herman Melville and his masterpiece, Moby Dick. He reads the book incessantly, studies Melville’s life, visits various Melville haunts, and relates his own career frustrations to Melville’s:
Financial struggle plagued Melville’s writing career […]. On the knife-edge of insolvency, [Melville] moved his family back to [New York], and took a job as a customs clerk. Confined to a desk near the docks for the next twenty years, the same man who sailed the world and produced one of the greatest novels ever written now toiled six days a week at four dollars a day, with only two weeks off a year — the exact amount of vacation time I’m allotted by my publishing company 150 years later. Battling traffic on my way back to the city on a Sunday before a long, dull workweek in the Pit, I can almost feel him in the car with me, riding shotgun, silent and sullen — sick with his own failure — especially in the urban wasteland that is the eastbound turnpike through Yonkers and the South Bronx.
But the most rewarding parts of the book are when Hocking reveals his own inner life, portraying the moments of shame and anxiety that have led him to seek help, as when he’s up all night worried about a job interview, or trying, once again, to get back together with an ex-girlfriend:
“But the thing is: I’m happy [without you]. Things are working out for me. And I can’t spend the rest of my life thinking about tattoos and rock shows and skateboarding. Or church.”
I sat there nodding, the brick walls and bright Mexican murals and cute waitresses with trays of margaritas going all blurry as Nicole collected her things and walked out.
I drove myself home in a state of semishock. I wanted to scream. I wanted to sleep with three women at the same time, smoke cigarettes, beat the shit out of someone twice my size, put my fist through a plate glass window, pour whiskey on the wounds. I wanted to tear free from my skin and bury my bones in another state, as far from my own heart as I could get.
It’s in these moments where we cringe with the author that the book becomes transformational. It might not make for wild entertainment or a neat story arc, but Hocking’s willingness to expose his emotional weakness and his resistance to seeking help is — especially for men — a clarion call.
If there’s a flaw with Wonderworld, it’s the false promise of drama in its marketing. There are no great floodgates here, and there is no wonderworld. What Mr. Hocking presents to us, with a heartfelt and lyrical touch, is a clear-eyed illustration of how men suffering emotional damage can learn to get by.
The message is simple: when, inevitably, someone puts a gun to your head and makes off with your belongings, resist the temptation to turn into Ahab. Share your struggles with friends. Join a support group. Take the subway and escape to the ocean for an afternoon.
Don’t destroy yourself in the angry pursuit of white whales.
James Bernard Frost is the author of two novels as well as a prizewinning travel guide, and has contributed to the San Francisco Examiner and Wired Online, where he wrote food, travel, and culture reviews.