The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Care to read a take on the early days of the space race as written by a literary aristocratic? Let's talk about the author first. Mr. Tom Wolfe was one of a kind, a bit of a midcentury-modern Oscar Wilde, famous for his trademark white suits and hyperventilating style of prose, self-described as New Journalism. Norman Mailer once compared Wolfe's writing style to having sex with a 300 pound woman - "Fall in love or be asphyxiated" - though Wolfe himself explained, "It's a tantrum. It's a wonderful tantrum." Examples of Wolfe's handiwork include exclamation points - used often and frequently in pairs!! - and the phrase, "Screw the pooch," which perhaps he did not dream up but certainly employs to colorful and attention-grabbing success. 

Now let's consider his treatment of the dawning days of America's manned space flight. In this non-fiction classic, Wolfe lays bare the unique character of the original seven Mercury astronauts, and weaves a beautiful tapestry of their common history with the bucking broncos of the 1950s experimental flight test programs, but even more fascinating is his thesis of how and why the two groups parted ways. Based on thorough and exacting research,
The Right Stuff stares straight into the eyes of the Mercury Seven and dares to describe their certain je ne sais quoi that ordinary words like courage and discipline fail to capture. 

* * * * *

In the past few months, I've been completely obsessed with the space race. Fascinated though I am, and voraciously searching for new and interesting insights on the saga of U.S. manned space flight, I am not, as the saying goes, reading everything I can get my hands on. Quite the opposite. Well aware that there are always plenty of clunkers in the literary canon of any particular topic, especially one as heady and distinctive as this, I only want to read the best of the best. So I'm carefully picking my way through the recommended reading lists, devouring every delicious detail of the cream of the crop (I'm currently on my fifth, yes, FIFTH reading in a row of my favorite find, Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins), and hoping that each new book I read will not duplicate but complement the others, filling in new pieces of the space race puzzle. 

In that respect, The Right Stuff hits it out of the park. Wolfe is a bit of a whack job, but his research is sound, his theories are interesting, and his well-chosen and witty words laser in on exactly what it was that made those astronauts tick, and why the world loved them so. He writes with an understanding of how ordinary Americans perceived the Mercury Seven, and that hits home for me. 

The space race was a really big deal at my house, and informed my childhood in some wonderful ways. Not only was it a fabulous feat of great minds coming together to solve extraordinary challenges - from which I gathered that nerds are cool and Anything really is Possible - but the space race also uniquely united my unhappy science-loving parents, and gave little-me some rare glimpses of their enthusiastic, most optimistic selves. The space race infused my childhood with some much-needed happy vibes, and in learning more about the program, the missions, and the men who shot themselves out into space, I come full circle and learn new things about myself.