In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe attempts both to explain the attitudes and worldview of fighter jocks and gently satirize this code of values by presenting a third-person narrative that ostensibly understands and sympathizes with the men’s code. Nonetheless, his narrative contains certain charged phrases that reveal Wolfe’s detachment from his subjects. This approach allows him to probe the mindset that, in his analysis, both facilitates and results from the pilots’ extremely serious, unspoken conviction that they have “the right stuff” and can behave accordingly. Simultaneously, however, the wry character of Wolfe’s omniscient narration reminds the audience that Wolfe does not necessarily share the pilots’ belief in the tenets of the Fighter Jocks’ code; rather, he merely understands its ethos well enough to explain the value system. Wolfe’s matter-of-fact tone emphasizes both the entrenchment of “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving and Driving & Balling” in the astronauts’ way of life and the inherent silliness of men, held in the public eye as national heroes undertaking challenging, dangerous missions, who are more concerned with the Drinking & Balling that seems to occur in every spare moment:

One day all seven of them were out in San Diego for a tour of the Convair plant and a look at the latest progress on the Atlas rocket. Convair wanted to do it up right and had treated them all to their own rooms at the Konakai, a rather high-toned hotel built in a Polynesian motif on Shelter Island, overlooking the Pacific. It so happened that Scott Carpenter had drawn a room with a double bed. That evening one of the boys approached him in a comradely fashion and said that his room had two twin beds, whereas in fact he was going to require a double bed for the evening. Would Scott mind switching rooms? It was all the same to Scott, and so they switched rooms. Scott mentioned it to his buddy John Glenn with a smile, as an amusing local note, and thought no more about it.

Wolfe’s detached, objective diction and avoidance of stating explicitly the astronaut’s reason for switching renders this a dryly humorous anecdote. Phrases such as “it so happened” and “in fact he was going to require a double bed for the evening” both present the episode as an ordinary, uninteresting event, rather than a salacious item of gossip and emphasize that, from the astronauts’ perspective, the affair probably was not unusual. Crucially, Wolfe avoids directly commenting on the incident; however, his tone suggests that he regards the episode as more amusing and less serious than did either the unnamed astronaut needing a double bed or John Glenn (whose moralizing reaction to the event we see later). Wolfe assumes a tone of sardonic objectivism in reporting an episode that illustrates, as Kathryn Esbaugh wrote in 2009, “the silliness and bombast of a group of people whom the American public might like to remain mysterious” in order to illuminate the disjunction between the astronauts’ public image and the realities of the lifestyle that helps define them.

Discussion Questions

1. Compare Wolfe’s tone in this passage to the writing style of other writers we have read. How does Wolfe’s tendency, in this passage, toward understatement (or no statement at all) compare with Johnson, Carlyle, or Ruskin, who leave virtually nothing unsaid? How does it compare to McPhee, who tends to write in a more clear, direct, and unambiguous manner?

2. Could those other writers’ styles illuminate the same aspects of this scene that Wolfe highlights (humor, disjunction between image and reality) in a similar amount of space? How does Wolfe’s style affect the themes of the story that he chooses to emphasize? What might it downplay or omit?

3. Wolfe frequently uses dialogue; this passage stands out because it records two conversations without offering a word of dialogue. Is this an effective choice? Would direct quotes undermine Wolfe’s intent in this passage?

4. How does Wolfe demonstrate control as narrator in this passage?

Questions

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 7 April 2011