Pardlo’s memoir is by turns analytical, angry, ironic, raw and emotional. A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, he fortifies his prose with images that jolt reflection and meditation to something closer to lived and felt experience. He pictures his father’s dim Vegas apartment with “sunlight slipping under a window shade like a hotel bill.” On strike with the air traffic controllers in 1981, he sees how “our picket line warps in the heat.” While this vertiginous memoir covers Pardlo’s youth, brief Marine reserves stint, false-starting college career, two marriages, alcoholism, parenthood, and the constant negotiations of race, its center is Pardlo’s relationship with his father. A demanding man, both blunt and cryptic, the elder Pardlo tested his son with a rigorous trial-by-dictionary that required the second-grader to look up an assigned word, memorize the definition, and learn all other unfamiliar words it referenced. That this “ordeal” gave Pardlo a love of language rather than an aversion to it, is amazing. And on writing, Pardlo is eloquent: “Poetry answers no prayers. Poetry is useless to me but in one way. Reading it makes me a nicer person” by opening him to the needs and desires of others. Among the standouts in this impressive overview of a life, are Pardlo’s insightful profiles of the family dynamics of alcoholism, and the sheer exuberance of family life. “Behind The Wheel” could almost be a short story, as the voices of three generations quibble, explain, protest, and joke, all at the same time.
Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America - Gregory Pardlo