I ask you to be open-minded here. Not because the story, this book, is in any way an unsatisfying read or unworthy of being a Story of the Month selection. On the contrary, it is one of the most enjoyable and best written books I’ve ever read. I ask for your understanding as to why I picked a “nonfiction novel” from 1979. And, that reason is because, simply put, it is a classic of nonfiction, of New Journalism, and of modern literature. It is a literary triumph. So let’s celebrate That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for February 2010: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.
That’s the reason why I chose to highlight this book this month. But the reason I love the book so much is because it’s just a great story. Actually, it’s a series of stories about a group of men that piece together the birth and early years of the NASA space program and the Mercury Seven astronauts. It is an in-depth look into the lives and minds of the fighter jocks of the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s, the men who would go on to be NASA astronauts.
The Right Stuff begins with the status quo of a test pilot’s life–including that of the test pilot’s wife’s life. We sneak a peek into the home life of these men before we even get to meet them, as men or as pilots. Then we soon learn of the dangers that these men subject themselves (and their wives) to every day as they “push the envelope” of testing fighter planes, testing maneuvers and pushing toward Mach 1.
As an avid fan of astronomy and NASA, it was fun to read through the book the first time and see names like Alan Shepard and John Glenn (who were “famous” among the military yet unknown to the public) and to know that they’d be key players in the story that was unfolding. My parents and every subsequent generation know that the Mercury Seven astronauts “flew” successful missions that tested the outcome of sending a human into outer space and safely returning him or her home. We know that they made it, that they survived. We know them as astronauts, not as fighter pilots. We see them as heroes because of what they did. There’s no worry or doubt when we think of them. They were after our time.
But The Right Stuff shows us what it was like to live in a time where space flight seemed impossible, but the threat of Soviet projectile rocket bombs, aimed at the United States, felt completely possible. We get to see the great Space Race from the other side, from a time when the outcome was neither known nor guessable. American pride ran rampant, but American technology faltered. But the hopes and dreams and faith that America put in these astronauts, in the Mercury Seven, these military pilots, was unshakeable. When our country had nothing else but fear and test rocket explosions, it was able to turn to these men who, so they thought, thanks to the speeches of aw-gee-shucks John Glenn, were the quintessential American man. They looked to these astronauts; these faithful husbands and loving fathers; these Christian men of sound moral standing; these patriotic pilots of the Air Force, Navy, and Marines; these men with so much silent machismo that it humbled the rest of America. Anyone who met any of these seven astronauts felt like they were looking into the eyes of a man filled with such an innate sense of bravery that he’d willingly volunteer to strap himself on to a rocket to blast into space. But, really, they were just following the unspoken code of the fighter jock: never give up, do what it takes to climb to the top, don’t get left behind, never lose that righteous stuff. Really, it was all about having “the right stuff.”
To compare The Right Stuff to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would be a crime, because I think it would take credit away from Wolfe’s exceptional work in creating this book. But I will make a small comparison: when I read In Cold Blood, I could feel Capote’s bias toward the murderer Perry Smith (he clearly found him vastly more interesting than Smith’s partner, Dick Hickock) on every page. We learn very little about Hickock, but we learn everything, everything, about Smith. However, in The Right Stuff, I rarely, if ever, sense Wolfe’s biases. He doesn’t come out and say, “Man! These guys are amazing! Look at all the crazy stuff they do! Such bravado! What daredevils!” Rather, he just shows us instances of the fighter jocks engaging in unauthorized fighter plane chases that could clearly prove fatal. He lets the pilots’ actions speak for themselves, to let us come to our own conclusions if we find them to be reckless fools or brave air and space pioneers. It’s up to us to decide. Wolfe presents the facts. We can interpret them as we see fit. And that’s what I call good writing. If that’s a quality that readers prize in fiction, then, to me, it’s an even greater achievement in creative nonfiction. (As a creative nonfiction writer, I can vouch that it’s sometimes more difficult to write about things that have actually happened!)
So whether or not you agree with me that a book published in 1979 could be considered a classic, please consider giving The Right Stuff a look-over.
And do yourself a favor: steer clear of the film “adaptation.” It’s an enjoyable movie, but couldn’t possibly be further removed from the content of this epic masterpiece of nonfiction and New Journalism.