Friday, January 31, 2014

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Title: The Right Stuff
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher:  Bantam Books (1979)

  It's a brand new year, and time for Michael and me to come back from the holiday break to restart our books-into-films fun. I am definitely looking forward to it as this is a movie that I haven't seen. As soon as I'm done here, I'm off to watch what Hollywood has to say about America's first astronauts. But first, the book. While reading I had Many Thoughts and had even sketched out two separate (but complimentary) posts in my mind for this month's selection. Then beautiful weather struck and I was outside in all my spare moments enjoying sunshine and horses so I'm falling back on AW's trusty review format to try and include an abbreviated version of my conflicting thoughts on The Right Stuff.
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Right Stuff

From the author's website: "Men first flew into space in 1961, but until The Right Stuff was first published in 1979 few people had a sense of the most engrossing side of that adventure: namely, the perceptions and goals of the astronauts themselves, aloft and during certain remarkable odysseys on earth.

It is this, the inner world of the early astronauts, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and their confreres, that Tom Wolfe describes with his extraordinary powers of empathy. He shows us the bidden olympus to which all ambitious combat and test pilots aspired, the top of the pyramid of the right stuff. And we learn the nature of the ineffable pilot's grace without which all else meant nothing."

It was either this or Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving.
(Or, when this book brings out my more cynical side, The White Manly Stuff.)

What Works:
Well, the subject, obviously! What can be more exciting than scientific, engineering and human limits being tested? Tom Wolfe was specifically interested in the personality of pilots who, with a 23% chance of catastrophic accident, "were willing - willing? delighted! - to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero." Wolfe, for all the sarcastic language he employs, clearly fans out for what he describes as the right stuff. I wasn't quite so into this aspect of Wolfe's fascination but there's no doubt these pilots were on the technological edge and it makes for gripping reading.

Even so, why was the press aroused to create instant heroes out of these seven men? ... The forgotten term, left behind in the superstitious past, was single combat.

The single combat warrior analogy was brilliant. As a reader of historical fiction, I've had ample opportunity to mull over the absurdity of single combat determinism and applying this very old tradition to the space race hit the nail on the head perfectly. Also, it's nice to know the press has a tradition of insta-history. I thought it was a new thing but apparently there is nothing new under the sun.

The details Wolfe was able to include really add to the intimate portrayal of how the first seven came to be astronauts, and just what they had to go through along the path to space travel and, no pun intended, beyond. Seeing how personalities clashed and clicked can be just as engaging as descriptions of the progressively more advanced space capsules ships. (Equally fascinating but very depressing were details of the training the chimpanzees received for the first test flights.) These details also, accidentally I think, led Wolfe to the minor but crucial difference between test pilots and astronauts. If I had to summarize it, test pilots need more freedom to break stuff (and I don't just mean aircraft:).

What Doesn't:
This book reads a heck of a lot like a second draft. Apologies to Wolfe (and authors everywhere really) as writing a book (and certainly one of this magnitude) is a huge undertaking but the writing was just off at times. New people would show up like you ought to know who they are and what they've done (and sometimes they would disappear as quickly with no explanation) but there was no set up for them. Certain phrases and themes were so over-used I started to feel brain bludgeoned by them (and holy shit does this man love italics). The book finishes rather than ends. I read that the original plan was to write the story up until the moon landing but then Wolfe changed his mind. It reads a lot like he changed his mind right in the middle of writing. And speaking of that finish, it was badly done. The note it finishes on highlights one of the biggest problems I had with this book.

To Wolfe, "the right stuff" is an amalgam of stamina, guts, fast neural synapses and old-fashioned hell raising."

Wolfe goes on (and on and on) about the right stuff.

Yet there it was. Manliness, manhood, manly courage... there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff...

...manly courage in the face of physical danger. When they met someone who had it, they wanted to establish a relationship with that righteous stuff.

They knew it had to do with the presence, the aura, the radiation of the right stuff, the same vital force of manhood that had made millions vibrate and resonate thirty-five years before to Lindbergh...

I think you see where I'm going here. I found it embarrassing for Wolfe that he would write a book specifically about the type of people who would be willing (willing? delighted!) to participate in such extreme limits but didn't include anything about opportunity. There's your basic opportunity-stuff like smarts, good health, good eyesight etc. but there's no doubt that being an astronaut did not rely only on Wolfe's right stuff. These astronauts were going to be white males because test pilots were white males.

Much was made about combat being a part of the right stuff and not getting left behind. Combat was a proving ground and some pilots even despaired of coming out of their training when opportunities for combat were not available. It's no secret how hard Black American pilots had to lobby just to be able to serve their country during WWII and women weren't even allowed in combat until after 1991. This post can't begin to address the number of groups who are full of people with the right stuff but most certainly without the opportunity to prove it in the 50s and 60s.

Wolfe briefly mentions that a couple of the wives featured in the novel were pilots (might they have had the right stuff?) but women were just as often encapsulated by such lovely anecdotes as "the most marvelous lively young cookies were materializing also, and they were just there, waiting beside the motel pools, when one arrived, young juicy girls with stand-up jugs and full-sprung thighs and conformations so taut..." Sorry, I had to stop typing. Cuz, really? Yuck! That's women, folks. Part of the United Home Front or Have Jugs Will Juice.

But the crowning moment for Wolfe's blind spot comes during the book's finale where he heavily implies that Yeager was obsessed with a particular test craft because he was just so fucking fed up with affirmative action. Yeager, who, lest we forget, is set up from the very beginning of this book as the test pilot's test pilot. Up for anything, will fly with broken ribs, the essence of the right stuff. Yeah, it's so surprising he'd be excited for a new aircraft to try out. It so happens that test flight in this craft led to a nasty accident after which he never tried to break another record. Just what are you implying, Wolfe?

On the upper reaches of the great ziggurat the subject of race had never been introduced before. The unspoken premise was that you either had the right stuff or you didn't, no other variables mattered.

Within the same paragraph that that quote is pulled Wolfe goes on to try for some sort of explanation about how the astronauts all just happened to be white.

It was typical of career military officers generally. Throughout the world, for that matter, career officers came from "native" or "old settler" stock.

I'm not even sure what this means. Is he trying to imply that American Whites of northern European descent were native to the US but not other Americans? The pilot featured in this section was of African descent. The first Africans came to the eastern US in the early 17th century. How Wolfe can imply that this does not qualify as "old settler" stock completely escapes me.

And, by the way, the subject of race had come up: one of the first seven astronauts had an entire stand-up routine about a "Cowardly Astronaut" which was a vile and racist portrayal of a Mexican immigrant (Technically, some more "old settlers" as obviously white Europeans were not the only "settlers" and vast swaths of the western US used to be Mexico.).

The idea that the first seven astronauts just happened to be white males is a statement that can only be made by someone willfully ignorant of US history.

This book is a fascinating look at the creation of the space program and astronauts. There will be times at which you can't stop turning pages and you will just yearn to be racing down a beach in a fast car or sitting in a capsule waiting for the countdown (but hopefully not peeing in your suit:). However, there will be times you want to throw the book at the wall. Going in with eyes wide open will make for a much better reading experience.

So about the movie...  don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson


  1. Wonderful review, Rachel. I know I agree with all the things you mention about what worked. Wolfe's unique look, with his unexpected darkly humorous critique of this bunch, at these unique individuals and the special cadre they came from, made for an enjoyable read. Yet, what didn't work, as you noted, did bring it down some (especially how well it started out). I'd seen the film first-run, and numerous VHS, DVD screenings, and to finally read the source material made what Kaufman produced from something special. I'm so glad we kicked off our fourth season of book and film with this, especially for getting me to finally take in Tom Wolfe's words. What a way to start! Many thanks :-).

  2. Why does my own blog keep eating my comments? *sigh*

    Thanks for the great suggestion! It was really interesting to see this film and read this book.

  3. You might think about changing templates, as a test, See if its comment behavior gets better. HTH

  4. I've been thinking of changing templates for quite some time now. For some reason, I am inordinately fond of my template. It's not like it's all that special (or even that good for displaying now that vids are all in larger formats - that was not the case when I started blogging) but I can't seem to move away from my attachment to it. :)