Here’s my review of the late Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in the Rice U. Thresher, October 11, 1979 (p. 8):
Tom Wolfe climbs the invisible ziggurat
The Right Stuff
Because American novelists haven’t exactly lit up the sky since World War II, journalists have elbowed their way into the literary spotlight. The most celebrated and least understood of the so-called New Journalists, Tom Wolfe, has, after infinite delays, published the book that conclusively renders untenable the misconceptions so many people hold about Wolfe and his achievements.
I once asked Elizabeth Bennett, a feature writer for the Houston Post, what influence Wolfe had on her profession. “Oh, he’s had a tremendous impact,” she said. “He’s made journalism more subjective, allowed the reporter to become the central character in the story, and so on.” This is the usual image of Wolfe—an egocentric genius in a white suit who transcribes every EEG jiggle from his beloved cortex straight into psychedelic whizbang prose detailing each nuance of his personal reactions to the events observed.
Wolfe’s immense reputation has often been appropriated to justify volumes of “I Was There (But Was too Cratered on Uncut Siamese Tiger Balls to Remember)” journalism. It’s particularly depressing that a pro like Bennett has fallen for this myth.
Wolfe has almost always written in the third person. Not once in The Right Stuff does the author put in a personal appearance. He couldn’t. This inside account of the seven Mercury astronauts chronicles events that occurred between 1947 and 1964. Wolfe merely (!) extends the traditional boundaries of journalism to include the inner thoughts of the participants. His books may read like fiction, but he is not making it up. He dares to recreate the stream of consciousness musing of real people because he’s interviewed scores of participants for thousands of hours. He’s not only the most knowledgeable authority on the minutiae of American lifestyles (who else memorizes furniture catalogs?) but the hardest working reporter in the business.
The military subject matter of The Right Stuff is a radical departure for Wolfe. He made his reputation chronicling the glorious social anarchy of the 1960′s— among college students his best known work is The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, the story of former novelist Ken Kesey, the Billy Graham of LSD.
As with T. S. Eliot, Wolfe’s revolutionary style temporarily concealed his puritanical morals and right wing political views (his idol is Solzhenitsyn). During the 1970′s it became increasingly hard for him to maintain his objective tone when relating the hypocrisy of our trendy intellectuals; for Wolfe knew better than anyone that a colorful epidemic of freedom, a Turkish bazaar of alternate lifestyles, had been raging across the country during the prosperous post-war years, yet the culturally dominant liberal elites continued to mouth the dreary cliches about America n conformity and repression, while with one voice nervously mocking the tasteless presumptuousness of the working stiff who attempts to assert a little pride in his individuality.
The result of his disgust was the devastating antileft satire of Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine. One story in that book stood apart from the scathing glosses on the “Me Decade.” It was a magnificent account of two Navy carrier pilots who daily risked their lives over Haiphong and Hanoi, only to suffer venomous assaults from their own countrymen back home. I suspect that while researching “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie,” Wolfe decided to write a book about the unspoken-of substance that drives disciplined men to perform heroic deeds.
Wolfe discovered, however, that the national hoopla and hysteria that engulfed the Mercury astronauts was no less ludicrous than Leonard Bernstein’s cocktail party for the Black Panthers, which he covered in Radical Chic. In 1962 the American press beat itself into a frenzy asking: What could motivate a man to sit atop 200,000 pounds of exploding liquid oxygen? The anticlimactic answer Wolfe discovered was that these astronauts had nonchalantly survived more ghastly dangers during their years as anonymous military pilots. In one short stretch Gemini astronaut Pete Conrad had attended funerals for eleven of the other nineteen pilots in his training group at Patuxent River Flight Test School.
Wolfe’s major achievement is outlining the unspoken code, the unwritten world view of American military pilots. These young men died like flies trying to prove they possessed the “ineffable quality” that Wolfe somewhat lamely calls the Right Stuff.
It wasn’t mere courage. Any fool could risk his life:
No, the idea here (in the all enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment— and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite—and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, to a nation, to humanity, to God.
And the survivors considered the death of a friend prima facie evidence that the poor roasted stiff lacked the Right Stuff. The Pilots conceived of humanity as an “invisible ziggurat.” Huddled at the bottom were three billion hopeless nobodies—nonpilots. Next came pilots, then jet pilots, then fighter jocks, then combat tempered pilots, then flight test pilots, then Edwards’ AFB test pilots, then the Edwards’ rocket plane jocks, and then the truest brother of the brethren of the Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager.
With the factual material proving less focused than in, say, Wolfe’s dissection of the self destruction of modern art, The Painted Word, this book tends to meander. The real hero is not one of the seven Mercury astronauts, but Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, a Mud River, West Virginia boy so revered by his colleagues that every airline pilot in the U.S. has adopted his down-home drawl. Yeager was ineligible for astronaut training because he lacked a college degree. Not that he would have deigned to apply anyway— “A monkey’s going to make the first flight.”
That was the paradox. The automated Mercury flights seemed to demand about as much of the Right Stuff as it took to fly a Cessna. Yet, the public went berserk over The Seven—feting them with everything from tickertape parades to an intimate Texas-style cocktail party and cattle roast for 5,000 in the bone marrow congealing air conditioning of the Houston Coliseum. This li’l get-together climaxed with a striptease by a septuagenerian Sally Rand: It was electrifying.
It was quite beyond sex, show business, and either the sins or the rigors of the flesh. It was two o’clock in the afternoon on the Fourth of July, and the cows burned on,…and the Venus de Houston shook her fanny in an utterly baffling blessing over it all.
Wolfe contends that a nation terrified by Russian space triumphs exalted the Seven as Single Combat Warriors, our Davids versus their Goliaths (“Our rockets always blow up”).
And single combat warriors traditionally enjoy their rewards in advance. Most of the astronauts (John Glenn being the most stubborn exception) gallantly accepted the adoration of the lovely young astrogroupies who cruised around the rat shack boomtown of Cocoa Beach saying things like, “Well, four down, three to go.” This was never reported, of course, since the press had previously decided to serve them “up inside the biggest slice of Mom’s Pie you could imagine.”
It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950′s (as in the late 1970′s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance, the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole.
Wolfe seldom indulges in the Neon Rococo prose style he’s famous for, since the astronauts, with the exception of the stargazing Scott Carpenter, were gruff subject-predicate-object fellows. “If Gus (Grissom) had a telescope, he might use the small end of it to try to whack a turkey joint out of the maw of the Disposall if the thing was stuck, but that would be the end of that.”
Tailoring his prose style to reflect the mental habits of his character s — whether LSD evangelists in Electric Kool-Aid, Upper East Side culturati in Radical Chic, or jive pimps in Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers— has always been one of Wolfe’s extraordinary abilities. After reading, for example, Mau-Mauing you couldn’t think about the billions HEW spends to encourage poverty without a smile and an involuntary urge to check your wallet.
Nothing in this book, except for the Agnew-was-right heresy about the press, has that kind of obvious relevance. Yet, there is something significant in that the man who, for lack of competition, may be our finest living writer has tired of profiling trend-mongers, people who don’t actually do anything, just embody a style, who are important solely because this week everybody agrees they’re important. Wolfe’s astronauts aren’t terribly stylish or lovable, and, by the remarkable standards of their profession, not particularly heroic. They were breathtakingly ambitious, and that is currently considered the greatest sin. All in all, they were clearly unconsciousness-raised throwbacks and it’s encouraging that society has outgrown its childish admiration for them. I fear, however, that Tom Wolfe, the leading subversive of our era, disagrees. — Steve Sailer