How are families shaped by race, economics, genetics, love, jealousy and rifts? These are the questions Gregory Pardlo ponders in his highly anticipated memoir, Air Traffic. “In studying my family’s destruction, I am studying my own,” he writes in a raw, telling statement.
Pardlo enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in 2015, when his second book of poetry, Digest, won the Pulitzer Prize. Air Traffic is a narrative digest of his life and those of his family members, several of whom also experienced dramatic rises and falls. The poet delves deeply into a mosaic of memories, chronicling growing up black in Willingboro, New Jersey, in the 1970s and the battles he, his brother, father and other relatives have fought with depression, alcoholism and mental illness.
The Pardlos seemed firmly entrenched in middle-class security until August 5, 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, including Pardlo’s father. Gregory Sr. never quite recovered from the blow.
Meanwhile, during his teen years, the author’s “self-image was caught in a bitter custody battle between Alex. P. Keaton and Jimi Hendrix,” yet his adult years morph into a yo-yoing stream of failure and success.
The book’s powerful final chapter, “On Intervention,” offers a fascinating account of how Pardlo’s younger brother, Robbie, became the subject of the A&E reality show “Intervention” in 2010. Robbie shot to fame as a musician, once singing backup for Whitney Houston and forming the R&B trio City High, known for its Grammy-nominated hit, “What Would You Do?” Robbie’s drinking, however, caused his life to implode.
“Alcoholism was the Muzak of our familial dysfunction,” Pardlo explains. “Most of the time we didn’t even notice it.” Ironically, the intervention helped the author, not his brother, find his way to sobriety. However, Pardlo writes, “There can be no happily ever after for a recovering drunk like me.” That being said, Pardlo seems to be defying the odds, turning his pain into mesmerizing poetry and prose.