Poet Gregory Pardlo on growing up with a complicated father

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Gregory Pardlo’s new book about his complicated relationship with his father, an air traffic controller fired by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, is a clinic in storytelling. There is a reason Pardlo won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his book of poems, Digest. The man can write.

“By some concoction of sugar, nicotine, prescription painkillers, rancor, and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007,” Pardlo begins, and the prose never lets up.

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Air Trafficby Gregory Pardlo

Knopf, 272p $26.95

The son was shaped by a man whose life was dramatically shaped by his job. Read the title chapter, “Air Traffic,” where Pardlo Sr. describes to his son just how demanding and involved the job of an air traffic controller is, and you will never again take for granted a soft landing on a runway: intelligence, perfect recall, acting quickly but calmly while performing hugely complicated tasks under immense pressure. Being an air traffic controller shaped how Pardlo had to talk when on the job—blunt, emotionless, no nuance—which led in some ways to how he talked to his kids. Work was intense; he came home and wanted to be left alone.

Even beyond the rhythms of his speech, the author was shaped by a man who in his sparkling prose would ask questions that “were abrupt and random.... What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, he’d ask. My father’s game was cruel. His oppressive shadow gave my life purpose and meaning.”

Pardlo Sr. could manipulate the son at will. When he was in high school and wanted a car, he received a Hot Wheels toy car instead. And then he was showed his actual car. “My dad believed that the greater the depth of disappointment he could provoke in me initially, the greater my experience of joy would be once he rescued me from that disappointment.”

The key historical event in the book is the 1981 strike by PATCO, the union of air traffic controllers who were demanding better pay and benefits, among other things. Pardlo’s father was a leader in his union’s local and became a spokesperson for the cause in the Northeast. He took his son on a picket line.

It was an illegal strike according to the strictures of the Taft-Hartley labor bill, but the illegality of similar strikes had usually been overlooked by authorities before. It had always been in everyone’s best interest to find common ground between workers and owners and resolve their differences. This time the workers, federal employees, were fired by Reagan.

If you’ve worked or moved in organizing circles, you hear about the firing of the PATCO workers all the time because it effectively started a downslide of the union movement from which it has never fully recovered. Firing employees out of hand suddenly became a “legitimate” answer to labor disputes.

There is no clean through line to the Pardlo narrative. Father with outsized talents devastated by losing his job is crushed by life, leading son to be crushed, wander into squalor and addiction and create great poetry out of it all. In some ways that narrative may be appropriate, but Pardlo is too smart to try and manufacture such a simplistic cause-and-effect storyline.

“In studying my family’s destruction,” Greg Pardlo writes, “I am studying my own.”

Air Traffic clips quickly along and burdens the reader with almost no slow moments. Pardlo has a way of perfectly summarizing an entire social problem in just a few words. Speaking of his mother’s attempts to keep his brother Robbie in the world’s good graces, Pardlo writes, “My mother knew that, unprotected, black boys could get lost like a marble in the Rube Goldberg machine of public education, only to be quietly collected in the eager baskets of the criminal justice system.” Writing of his father’s final days, Pardlo shows us his father decamped to Las Vegas, addicted to opioids; he has a view of the Strip as if it were an airport runway.

Air Traffic goes on to detail Pardlo’s own struggle with alcoholism, his thoughts on poetry, race relations and finding the right elite grade school for his 6-year-old. He dissects his sexual relationship with an old girlfriend as refracted through an analysis of the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas, the performance art of Marina Abramovic, the writings of Frantz Fanon and Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage, but all are done with style and verve.

Pardlo talks about his brother Robbie’s addiction through which he weaves a painful story of his own struggle with alcohol and movement toward recovery. “In studying my family’s destruction,” Pardlo writes, “I am studying my own.”

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