The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff - Tom Wolfe You might have seen the film based on this book, which I loved, but I think I loved the book--a very different creature--even more. I should say up front I'm a big fan of space exploration, the kind of person who has read a bookshelf worth of stuff by and about astronauts, flight controllers, the engineers and builders of space craft. So you might say I was predisposed to like a book on the seven Mercury astronauts--the first Americans to go into space. On the other hand, as someone who has read voraciously on this subject, it also means a lot that I'd put this particular book at the top of the class. Tom Wolfe is not just a great journalist, but a fine novelist (Bonfire of the Vanities) and it shows in this. The book has a literary style, and uses techniques that in lesser hands might cause me to think "pretentious hack." Paragraphs that go on forever, staccato sentences interspersed with long, long run on sentences, repeated phrases such as "ziggurat," and yes, "the Right Stuff." There's even passages, especially one at the end about Chuck Yeager, that use the stream of consciousness technique. These are the sorts of things that in reviews often bring out rants from me, but here works. For one, it's a very readable style--in fact a blast to read. He conveyed scientific and technical niceties and did so lucidly but never tediously. There's a rhythm to his prose, it's conversational in tone, not what I'd call folksy exactly, but breezy, at times gossipy and with plenty of humor. Here's a paragraph that encapsulates a lot of Wolfe's subject and style: As to just what this ineffable quality was... well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. 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, a nation, to humanity, to God. Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramid made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every food of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even—ultimately, God willing, one day—that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.