Books

Beating them all to the launch-pad

THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

Marni Jackson November 19 1979
Books

Beating them all to the launch-pad

THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

Marni Jackson November 19 1979

Beating them all to the launch-pad

THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

(McGraw-Hill Ryerson, $17.50)

Tom Wolfe suffers from a wonderful form of astigmatism. Each of us wears the particular tartan of our own cultural clan, but it’s all more or less plaid, right? Wolfe, however, sees . . . red! green! horrible little flecks of mustard and ... a hideous geometry,

a code hidden in the warp and woof of things. The middle ground simply doesn’t interest him. Going back and forth between tweezer-held details and big, broad crayon strokes, Wolfe ferrets out the absurd reconciliations beneath the surface of things until a familiar pattern becomes gaudy with new meaning in front of our eyes.

If Wolfe, for instance, hadn’t been right there clamping down on the obvious, doing a biopsy of the banal, we wouldn’t have the Me Decade—an epithet he invented and the journalistic soupbone from which whole columns about anything have been brewed ever since. And without Wolfe, we might never have known about the Right Stuif. The Right Stuff was what it took to belong to the fraternity of American pilots who flew the first rocket planes, and rose up the pyramid to become astronauts. It involved fear and death and bravery, certainly; but to really have the Right Stuff, as a broncobusting sky-cowboy-fighter-jock, you never actually talked about those things. What Wolfe does, with beautiful control

of fact and tone, is pounce on the unspoken values behind a voice we all recognize. It comes over the airplane intercom, smooth as an FM disc jockey and tells us that a l’il ol’ red light is flashing up here on the control panel, but we should rest easy, because this is Chuck Stable, your pilot, and I’m flying this baby on home.

It’s the same voice we heard from the first American in space (“It is a tremendous view, Wally”). But what did the astronauts feel? As pilots with the Right Stuff, they would never tell, but Wolfe hazards a guess. What the astronauts experienced was what they had been exhaustively conditioned to experience: nothing. Just another day at the office. They looked out into space and thought, “This is the same as the simulator, only not as bad.” The old hot-rod glory of flying was gone, because astronauts were not so much pilots as what the public and politicians craved at the time—God-fearing family men up there in space beating out the Russians to win the (unspoken) Cold War. One day they were heroes (for doing nothing) and next week who could tell them apart?

Wily Wolfe. He is not just talking about an American breed of hero, he is also criticizing the hero-makers, the media. And so the dad of New Journalism finesses journalism itself by retelling the story in precisely the opposite way, as if everyone else got lost and went to the wrong launch-pad. (Wolfe portrays the press as a Proper Gent with a compelling sense not of truth but of decorum.)

He has so much information to bestow on the reader that he calls on his usual high-octane style only at intervals, like booster rockets on reserve. This keeps the whole thing—a long, complex narrative—aloft. And by the end of the book, Wolfe’s eighth, there we are, snuggled right down in the warp and woof of things with the author, peering through the curtains at all those dullards locked outside. They don’t have the Right Stuff! They can’t read the mind of the first American chimpanzee in orbit—which Tom Wolfe does, hilariously.

Marni Jackson