To put it as kindly as possible, Kenny Porpura’s mother was a mean and foulmouthed drunk – and she was drunk often and regularly. To make things even worse for Kenny and his older brother, their father, if to a somewhat lesser degree, had the same problem. When the two finally figured out that they couldn’t stand each other and decided to separate for good (although they never would divorce), child custody judges were left with three bad choices: let the boys live with their mother, let them live with their father, or place them into foster care. Almost unbelievably, over the years – depending on which parent seemed to be the more stable of the pair at the moment – the judges would choose to move the brothers from parent to parent.
Porpura’s memoir The Autumn Balloon tells exactly what the boys went through all those years they were being bounced between their mother’s New Mexico apartments and cheap motels (when they weren’t living in her car) and whatever place their father could afford to house them in New York. The chances that Kenny and his brother would beat the odds against them and emerge from their childhoods intact - much less make something of themselves – were slim. But they did it.
The “balloon” in the book’s title refers to Kenny’s mother’s habit of once-a-year ceremoniously releasing balloons marked with the names of relatives killed by their addictions into the air while she cried and her children looked on. Over the years, as the number of balloons grew, the scene became more and more representative of the odds against Kenny and his brother surviving the family curse.
Kenny, in particular, beat the odds. Always a good enough student despite being yanked from school to school so many times, Kenny would eventually turn a GED qualification into acceptance into the prestigious Columbia Journalism School. Even as a kid, he knew he wanted to be a writer, and he showed enough talent and eagerness to succeed that his teachers noticed him. And now he is a writer with one book under his belt and a bright future ahead of him.
The Autumn Balloon sad as it is, and filled with the stories of so many wasted lives, is also filled with equal measures of hopefulness. It recounts the true story of a boy who, by his own determination to do so, saved himself from the life he seemed destined to live. May The Autumn Balloon inspire others to do the same.