July 4 was not the time of year for anyone to be introduced to Houston, Texas, although just what the right time would be was hard to say. For eight months Houston was an unbelievably torrid effluvial sump with a mass of mushy asphalt, known as Downtown, set in the middle. Then for two months, starting in November, the most amazing winds came sweeping down from Canada, as if down a pipe, and the humid torpor turned into a wet chill. The remaining two months were the moderate ones, although not exactly what you would call spring.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe is about the Mercury Project, NASA’s first manned space missions, and the origins of the astronaut program.
Our blog recently completed a rundown of all of the Nebula nominees. At the conclusion of that project, I was a little burned out on reading speculative fiction. Whenever reading starts to feel like a chore, I start reading a different genre. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, an account of the early days of NASA and the test pilots that became the first astronauts, seemed like the perfect “palette cleanser.” Tom Wolfe recently passed away, and I like space stuff. I was right about it being a great change of pace. I burned through this book in three days, and it gave me the energy to read three other books in a week.
Tom Wolfe was a practitioner of “New Journalism.” The only previous experience that I had with that style was with Hunter S. Thompson’s alcohol-and-other-drugs-fueled escapades in Las Vegas while covering a race for Sports Illustrated and his alcohol-fueled experiences at the Kentucky Derby. Based on those reading experiences, it was my understanding that one of the hallmarks of New Journalism was Journalist-as-Participant. The historical record, however, is pretty clear that a drunk Tom Wolfe had not, in fact, been blasted into orbit with John Glenn or any of the other Mercury 7 astronauts. How then is The Right Stuff an example New Journalism?
Well, Tom Wolfe wrote his ass off. The book reads more “literary” than as an object of traditional journalism. Let me explain…no, there is too much…let me sum up…A traditional journalistic or scholarly book about the early astronauts and “what made them tick” might include quotations from interviews with those astronauts and people that knew them, government officials and news reporters from the time, and maybe a few academics to provide some Authoritative Interpretation. The writer wouldn’t put forth a theory of their own about the astronaut motivations, or, if they did, there’d be a ton of explicit sources backing them up.
Tom Wolfe just puts his theories out there, front and center, and then writes with such force – with repeated interjections, sometimes with exclamations! – and capitalizations and callbacks and pretty descriptions and literary techniques that the reader will forget that they are reading some nonfiction book; this story may be (at least in some sense) true, but it reads like a damn novel. It never really dives into the minutiae of bureaucratic organization nor is it really interested in any one’s point of view other than that which drives the author’s central point: the astronauts were military test pilots fueled by a Manly Competitive Desire to BE THE BEST and that performing well under pressure in that competition exhibits The Right Stuff (which is never explicitly defined, although I have my own theories).
I am a fan of David Foster Wallace’s writing, and I could see a clear influence from Tom Wolfe’s style in Wallace’s writing. And David Foster Wallace was certainly not the only literary writer influenced by Wolfe. Fans of literature really should check this out, just to trace back certain styles to their creator (or popularizer). Science fiction fans could be inspired by a (more or less) true account of fighter pilot personality and how their influence (or lack thereof) could impact a fictional space program. Fans of nonfiction could see that there are ways of telling a nonfiction story rather than the usual, traditional methodologies. I’d recommend this book to anyone, just with the disclaimer that it is NOT like the usual biographical or documentary-style rendition of the Mercury Project. The writer’s style is definitely noticeable, and some might be distracted by it (or it could just not be to their taste).
The book could also mysteriously trigger vague memories of a New Kids On the Block song such it stays in your head for days until you worry that it has become a literal and malignant earworm bent upon your destruction. But that could just be my lonely cross to bear.
My rating: 5 stars