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The Right Stuff Paperback – March 4, 2008
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“Technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic . . . The Right Stuff is superb.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“One of the most romantic and thrilling books ever written about men who put themselves in peril.” ―The Boston Globe
“An exhilarating flight into fear, love, beauty, and fiery death . . . Magnificent.” ―People
“Absolutely first class . . . Improbable as some of Wolfe's tales seem, I know he's telling it like it was.” ―The Washington Post Book World
“Crammed with inside poop and racy incident . . . fast cars, booze, astro groupies, the envies and injuries of the military caste system . . . Wolfe lays it all out in brilliantly staged Op Lit scenes.” ―Time
“Splendid . . . It shows our propensity to manufacture heroes, and, just as quickly, to forget them; it shows how a scientific program was exploited for political advantage; it provides a revealing character study of seven exceptional Americans.” ―The Saturday Review
From the Inside Flap
When the future began...
The men had it. Yeager. Conrad. Grissom. Glenn. Heroes ... the first Americans in space ... battling the Russians for control of the heavens ... putting their lives on the line.
The women had it. While Mr. Wonderful was aloft, it tore your heart out that the Hero's Wife, down on the ground, had to perform with the whole world watching ... the TV Press Conference: "What's in your heart? Do you feel with him while he's in orbit?"
The Right Stuff. It's the quality beyond bravery, beyond courage. It's men like Chuck Yeager, the greatest test pilot of all and the fastest man on earth. Pete Conrad, who almost laughed himself out of the running. Gus Grissom, who almost lost it when his capsule sank. John Glenn, the only space traveler whose apple-pie image wasn't a lie.
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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 butt 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 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).
This was the story of that time.