Where autobiographical writing by black men is concerned, perhaps no figure looms as large as James Baldwin’s stepfather, David Baldwin. In the immortal “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin painted an indelible portrait of the man, an itinerant Harlem preacher. He could be “chilling” and “indescribably cruel,” Baldwin wrote, and “certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else in him, buried in him, which lent him tremendous power and even, a rather crushing charm.”
David Baldwin’s large shadow threatens to obscure any number of fathers appearing in similar books in the years since the explosive arrival of “Notes” in 1955. We could turn, for instance to “Bourgeois Blues” by Jake Lamar, “Losing My Cool” by Thomas Chatterton Williams or to Gregory Pardlo’s riveting new book, “Air Traffic.” By no means the only recent works in this vein, these books contain complex and entirely plausible portraits of fiercely intelligent African American fathers. For each of these men, self-awareness sometimes makes them painfully cognizant of their limitations. In some cases they ran up against the tight contours of a race-obsessed society; in other instances, their boundaries were self-imposed.
In Pardlo’s telling, addiction played a pivotal part in his father’s decline and eventual death in 2016. Gregory Pardlo Sr.’s career and life had begun to fall apart many years before. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 members of PATCO, the union of air traffic controllers, and banned them from federal employment for life. A controller as well as a labor organizer, Pardlo Sr. hurtled toward the ground without a parachute. (As Pardlo notes, President Bill Clinton lifted Reagan’s ban in 1993).
Although Pardlo believes his mother was the brains of the family, it was his father’s overbearing personality that dominated their household in Willingboro, N.J. At home, Pardlo writes, “my dad’s language was often dismissive, hostile and unpredictable.”
The elder Partlow eventually found other jobs, but “there was a wounded quality he never quite shook.”
Just as James Baldwin worried “that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me,” Pardlo made a similarly troublesome observation about his father. “I’d learned at a young age to adjust for the self-aggrandizement in my father’s narratives. Problem was, so much of the way I interpret the world has come from the way he interprets it.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pardlo has also struggled with alcoholism, and so has his younger brother, a gifted musician who briefly enjoyed a taste of commercial success. “Alcoholism was the Muzak of our familial dysfunction,” Pardlo notes.
While immersed in efforts to overcome his own demons and his father’s troubling influence, the author endured a brief stint in college, washed out of the Marine Corps and stumbled through a short-lived marriage. While managing his grandfather’s bar, he arrived at a breakthrough of sorts: “Money, power, and geography hadn’t worked for me. Language had given me a semblance of escape.” Newly determined, he returned to school in hopes of remaking himself “as a cosmopolitan artist with a magical blue passport.” By 1998, he was a 30-year-old junior in college.
Here it would probably be helpful to mention that the author is now a celebrated poet, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 2015. That fact might explain the frequent emergence of a phrase or metaphor that sparkles with lyricism and imaginative muscle. “I heard the sliding glass door open like the lid on a can of baked beans,” for instance, or “I stared up at clouds bright as teeth in a black light nightclub.”
Amid such gems, Pardlo doesn’t dwell on his extraordinary climb; instead he refers often to the precariousness of this ascent. “There can be no happily ever after for a recovering drunk like me,” he writes. “Relapse can seduce me with the confidence that I’ve ‘got my drinking under control’ or that I’m ‘getting better.’ ”
Pardlo’s journey from aimless job-hopper to successful writer and partner in a fruitful second marriage isn’t so much described in detail as employed as a launchpad for philosophical musings. About 100 pages from the end, the book shifts from a more or less seamless narrative to a series of stitched-together observations and mini-essays on race, black art and the perils of parenting. While his thoughts on these and other subjects are perceptive and provocative, they seldom are as intriguing as the tale of his own meanderings. He eschews a straight line, he tells readers, because his experience has been anything but. He writes, “And so I keep searching, not entirely knowing what it is I’m looking for.”
Pardlo shares these reflections in prose that seems powerful and effortless. At the same time, he often writes as if holding something in reserve, perhaps stockpiling memories and experiences to be examined in future essays, poems and memoirs. Let’s hope so.
Jabari Asim is a former editor and columnist at The Washington Post. His next book, “We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies and the Art of Survival,” will be published in October.
By Gregory Pardlo
Knopf. 253 pp. $26.95