Post Road Magazine #28

The White Tide

Steven Church

Many writers and artists have been stricken with a psychological sickness known as the "white death," an all-consuming obsession with Herman Melville and his novel, Moby Dick. Junot Diaz, Laurie Anderson, Jackson Pollack, Tony Kushner, David Foster Wallace, Nick Flynn, and David Shields all had a touch of the sickness; the "white death" seemed especially infectious amongst a group of writers in New York City in the late 90's and early 2000's. Justin Hocking was one of these writers, riding the wave of Melville's resurgence with his own unique style and characteristic flow in an exciting debut memoir from Graywolf Press, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld.

Perhaps this movement toward Melville was a response to the spare minimalist prose and claustrophobic domestic tableaus that seemed to characterize so much contemporary and post-modern fiction. Perhaps it was the anti-imperialist, environmentalist ethos of his epic novel. Perhaps it was, as Hocking quotes another writer, because, Moby-Dick speaks so deeply to us today because this state of alienated meaninglessness is so prevalent in twentieth-century man." For whatever reasons, Melville's book enjoyed a resurgence in popularity amongst some writers, artists, and intellectuals, many of them restless transplants in their twenties who'd found themselves working soul-crushing cubicle jobs in New York publishing or, like Hocking, working a soul-crushing cubicle job in New York publishing, delivering Indian Food on evenings and weekends, writing a doomed novel, attending a twelve-step program for co-dependency, and taking every other opportunity to escape to the ocean, "the one place that felt like home, a lush wave garden free from all the thorns and thistles of the broken world," forever in search of the "blissed out" feeling that only surfing seemed to provide.

Melville's postmodern moves (authorial intrusion, shifting points of view, overtly symbolic characters, structural and formal idiosyncrasies) were exciting and relevant, even revolutionary to a whole new generation of writers. Moby Dick was "bending genre" and mixing fiction and nonfiction long before it was en vogue or taboo, and reading the book made everything new in literature, especially postmodernism, seem old. Perhaps more significantly, it filled writers with sea dreams of subjects so vast and deep and dark that they threatened to swallow them whole.

Recently I read about the tragic and unexpected death in Uganda of freelance journalist, Matthew Power, while on a writing assignment for Esquire. Power was a writer I admired very much, enjoying immensely some of his more Melvillian essays for Harper's Magazine, particularly his March 2008 piece, "Mississippi Drift: River Vagrants in the Age of Wal-Mart." Power also lived in New York during those years of the rising white tide; having apparently also caught a bit of the, "white death" himself, he was known, in conversation, to quote whole lines from Moby Dick.

Donovan Hohn, another writer and editor, and a friend of Power's, who would go on to write his own critically acclaimed Melville-inspired book, Moby Duck, remembered Power's love for Melville's masterpiece, and what might be called Power's penchant for chasing "white whales," or those deep, dark, and ineffable ideas. In Power's writing and in the writing of Hocking and Hohn and others afflicted with the "white death," we discover that those "ungraspable phantoms of life," can consume, nourish, and enlighten us even as they threaten our very existence.

Hocking, avid skateboarder and publishing industry "pit" drone, was paddling against the existential pushback of New York City, searching for something like peace in the wake of failed relationships and generalized anxiety, and ultimately finding inspiration in an old book and a newly developed passion for surfing; surfing is one thing that both holds his memoir together and sets it apart from other books that explore the "white death," making it a "surfing book" about the ocean and the environment, a memoir of real-life love and loss, as much as it is also an ekphrastic celebration of Moby Dick.

Composed of short, essayistic meditations that bounce between surfing vignettes, personal stories of work, love, and life in New York, and reflections on Melville's character and writing, the book still never spins out of control, but instead moves with grace-smooth, flowing, tight and focused-like one imagines Hocking skates the wooden bowl in Greenpoint and surfs the breaks at Rockaway. Mixed in with some wry humor and haunted images of Melville lingering around the edges of his consciousness, Hocking's book also takes the occasional experimental turn, making the book as delightfully unpredictable in form as it is in subject.

The Great Floodgates is a stunningly beautiful, finely tuned and often lyrical and heartbreaking meditation on identity, anxiety, love, surfing, Moby Dick, and the search for spiritual transcendence. Just when you think Hocking might be the obsessed and self-destructive Ahab or, worse yet, end up a Bartleby living out his days in a paralyzed corporate angst-ridden existence, he instead becomes our Ishmael, the narrator-hero first pulled under by the dark tides of life in New York City ascending finally from the sinking wreck of his past, rising to a new world no less complicated but filled with the promise of something close to enlightenment.

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