Friday, December 30, 2016

Book Review: The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe (1979)

Original dust jacket cover of The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, 1979.

Tom Wolfe, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in 1980. His look seems to be saying, "Yes, I am the Tom Wolfe!"

The Mercury 7 astronauts, 1960.
Tom Wolfe, writing in his classic book The Right Stuff about the Mercury 7 astronauts, the first American men in space, gets directly to the heart of what made these men tick. Most of the Mercury 7 astronauts were military test pilots, and being a military test pilot is about the hardest damned thing there is. It is the apex of singular macho pride. Those pilots are pushing the envelope of those planes every single day! And they are doing it by themselves! Sure, there's a whole crowd of support people on the ground, but up there, in the wild blue yonder, you are it! There's just you, and your judgement, your daring, your reflexes, your instincts, your STUFF, responsible for that plane. And if you have the right stuff, you'll bring that plane back safely. If you don’t have the right stuff, well, there’s a 23% chance you’ll die in an accident.

What exactly is “the right stuff”? Wolfe never gives the reader a brief definition, but it’s a combination of several things, all adding up to a cool unflappability in the face of possible death. 

Wolfe writes of “the right stuff,” “Perhaps because it could not be talked about, the subject began to take on superstitious and even mystical outlines. A man either had it or he didn’t! There was no such thing as having most of it. Moreover, it could blow at any seam.” (p.21)

There were numerous pitfalls along the way for anyone who wanted to make a career out of being a military pilot. Early in the book, Wolfe describes how the status of pilots was assessed in terms of the right stuff:

“Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even-ultimately, God willing, one day-that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.” (P.17-8) 

Wolfe returns to the image of the ziggurat numerous times throughout the book, and it’s a perfect metaphor that lingers with the reader. 

The Right Stuff introduces us to the world of American test pilots after World War II, and to one of the most colorful characters in the book, Chuck Yeager, perhaps the ne plus ultra of the right stuff. Yeager was cool and laconic, and never seemed to feel the pressure of his job, even during his successful attempt to break the sound barrier in 1947 in the Bell X-1. 

Wolfe vividly describes the California desert around Muroc Field, now known as Edwards Air Force Base, where much of the testing of the 1940’s and 1950’s happened. Wolfe writes of the landscape: “Other than sagebrush the only vegetation was Joshua trees, twisted freaks of the plant world that looked like a cross between cactus and Japanese bonsai. They had a dark petrified green color and horribly crippled branches. At dusk the Joshua trees stood out in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arthritic nightmare.” (p.36)

Yeager basically disappears from the book once the Mercury 7 astronauts were chosen, and The Right Stuff focuses on the sometimes complicated relationship the seven men had with each other. One of my favorite parts in the whole book was Wolfe’s description of astronauts Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton:

“As soon as Gus arrived at the Cape, he would put on clothes that were Low Rent even by Cocoa Beach standards. Gus and Deke both wore these outfits. You could see them tooling around the Strip in Cocoa Beach in their Ban-Lon shirts and baggy pants. The atmosphere was casual at Cocoa Beach, but Gus and Deke knew how to squeeze casual until it screamed for mercy. They reminded you, in a way, of those fellows whom everyone growing up in America had seen at one time or another, those fellows from the neighborhood who wear sport shirts designed in weird blooms and streaks of tubercular blue and runny-egg yellow hanging out over pants the color of a fifteen-cent cigar, with balloon seats and pleats and narrow cuffs that stop three or four inches above the ground, the better to reveal their olive-green GI socks and black bulb-toed bluchers, as they head off to the Republic Auto Parts store for a set of shock-absorber pads so they can prop up the 1953 Hudson Hornet on some cinderblocks and spend Saturday and Sunday underneath it beefing up the suspension.” (P.132-3) 

I love that description. It’s so wonderfully vivid. You can see Gus and Deke very clearly in your mind. It’s passages like this that make Tom Wolfe such a great writer. It’s a passage that you would never read in a more “scholarly” book about the Mercury space program, but because it’s a more unorthodox way of writing, and more similar to a description that you would read in a novel, Wolfe gets you closer to the truth of what Gus and Deke were probably like. 

The long sections of the book where Wolfe re-creates the astronaut's flights are amazing. It gets as close as we can to being inside their heads during those moments. And it seems to prove that picking astronauts from test pilots was the right thing to do, despite the quibbles of some climbing the ziggurat who squawked that the astronauts weren’t even really pilots because they weren’t in full control of the capsule! They were just passengers, there to enjoy the view! Sure some of the Mercury flights were relatively easy, but some were not-Gordon Cooper's flight especially. You needed someone who knew how to handle that pressure and make the right decisions in real time. Someone who had, yes, the right stuff!

John Glenn is one of the most vivid figures in the book, as he quickly became the chief media spokesperson for the Mercury 7 astronauts. Glenn was always amiable, and while some of the other astronauts looked askance at his goody two-shoes attitude, Tom Wolfe rather enjoyed Glenn. Wolfe said of Glenn in a 1981 interview: “It’s very rare to see a man in our day-outside the Church-who is a moral zealot and who doesn’t hide the fact; who constantly announces what he believes in and the moral standards he expects people to follow. To me that’s much rarer and more colorful than the Joe Namath-rake figure who is much more standard these days.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.164)

After Glenn’s successful flight in 1962, in which he became the first American to orbit the earth, President John F. Kennedy’s father, old Joe Kennedy himself, broke down in tears when he met Glenn. Wolfe wrote, “That was what the sight of John Glenn did to Americans at that time. It primed them for the tears. And those tears ran like a river all over America. It was an extraordinary thing, being the sort of mortal who brought tears to other men’s eyes.” (p.282) 

From a historical perspective, more than thirty five years after The Right Stuff was published, Wolfe was right to focus a lot of attention on Glenn, as he became the biggest hero from the early space program. Thanks to Glenn’s four terms in the United States Senate, along with his return to space in 1998, his celebrity among the average American far outstrips that of Alan Shepard, who beat out Glenn for the honor of commanding the first Mercury flight in 1961. 

The Right Stuff was an instant hit among both critics and the public. In the same 1981 interview quoted above, Wolfe was asked about the feedback he got from the astronauts about the book. Wolfe replied, “I’ve had varied reactions. Some of them really seemed to like it, or at least to have said that it’s accurate, which means more to me than whether or not they really liked it. Alan Shepard, I know, doesn’t like it because every time he’s asked he says, ‘I haven’t read it and I’m not going to.’” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.164)

Wolfe admitted that The Right Stuff was a difficult book to write, and it had a long gestation period. Wolfe had first gotten intrigued by the astronauts at the very end of the Apollo program, as he wrote about Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon in December of 1972, for Rolling Stone magazine. Wolfe quickly knew the material could be expanded to a book, as he said in a 1973 interview with Publishers Weekly, “the title will probably be The Right Stuff,” and “The reigning fantasy is that it will be ready by fall.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.31) That obviously didn’t happen, as Wolfe admitted in 1979, “I would do almost anything at times to avoid working on it…which may be the reason I published three other books during that period.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.107)

One of those other books was the essay collection Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, published in 1976, which I reviewed here. A highlight of Mauve Gloves was the article “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” about fighter pilots in Vietnam. Wolfe comes close to naming “the right stuff” in this passage: “Within the fraternity of men who did this sort of thing day in and day out-within the flying fraternity, that is-mankind appeared to be sheerly divided into those who have it and those who don’t-although just what it was…was never explained.” (Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, p.45) 

Wolfe humorously discussed his problems finishing The Right Stuff in a 1981 interview with Joshua Gilder, published in Saturday Review: “I even got to the point where I wore clothes in which I couldn’t go out into the street. Such as khaki pants; you know, I think it’s demeaning. I can’t go out into the street in khaki pants or jeans.” Gilder then asks the natural follow up question: “You own a pair of jeans?” Wolfe answers, “I have one pair of ‘Double X’ Levis, which I bought in La Porte, Texas, in a place that I was told was an authentic Texas cowboy store, just before I started working on The Right Stuff. I’ve had them on, but I’ve never worn them below the third floor. So I put on a pair of khaki pants and a turtleneck sweater, a heavy sweater.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.161)

In another 1981 interview, which was not published until 1983, Wolfe discussed the structural challenges of The Right Stuff. “The book was extremely difficult to write. There was no central character, no protagonist…The problem of giving the book a narrative structure, some sort of drive and suspense, was quite tough.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.182) Wolfe is right about the book not having a central character. If Chuck Yeager had been chosen to be an astronaut, it would have been easy-he clearly would have been the central figure. As it is, Yeager looms large in the beginning of the book, and then disappears once the astronauts for the Mercury program are selected, at which point John Glenn becomes the central figure in the narrative. 

In that same interview, Wolfe was asked if he was pleased with the reception of the book. He said, “I felt that it was my best book. I very consciously tried to make the style fit the particular world I was writing about, mainly the world of military pilots. To have had a prose as wound up as the prose of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test would have been a stylistic mistake.” (Conversations with Tom Wolfe, p.181) 

Tom Wolfe devotees shouldn’t worry about the prose style being too laid back, there are still plenty of exclamation points, and some pet Wolfe phrases reappear throughout the book, as people are “packed in shank to flank,” (p.85) and the reader is told to “deny it, if you wish!” (p.303) However, no one in The Right Stuff is described as arteriosclerotic, which was a pet word of Wolfe’s in his first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

The Right Stuff feels like a perfect book for its time. Wolfe’s portrait of the Mercury 7 astronauts as genuine American heroes resonated just as America ended the bewildering decade of the 1970’s, in which she had seen her power and might slip, and moved into the more patriotic 1980’s, led by Ronald Reagan, who loved stories about American heroism. I wonder if Ronnie ever read The Right Stuff? Well, he probably saw the movie. 

Tom Wolfe is at his very best throughout The Right Stuff, and it’s one of the best books of his long career.

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