Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, though a work of nonfiction, reads like a novel, with vivid description, rising and falling action, and lively, well-timed dialogue. Alexander Zevin '04 describes The Right Stuffas straddling the genres of fiction and journalism, "non-fiction dressed as a novel, omnipresent narrative hedged in by newspaper columns" ("Novel Nonfiction") Of all of Wolfe's appropriations of fictional techniques, the characters truly make this work more than just an overview of the dawning of the space age. Wolfe delves into each character's psyche, framing the story through multiple lenses as an omniscient, mind-reading narrator. As each astronaut launches into space, Wolfe seems to be strapped in the spacecraft alongside him, witnessing the same sights and details and even speculating his thoughts. At one point, the reader shares the experience of the first monkey to ascend in Project Mercury; at another, one even experiences first hand the feeling of Al Shepard's urine when he's forced to relieve himself inside his pressure suit. When John Glenn's flight goes awry he receives cryptic signals from controllers, and Glenn, along with the reader and Tom Wolfe, realizes with frustration that he is only a puppet in this mission.

It slowly dawned on him...Have been reading...For how long?...Quite a little surprise. And they hadn't told him! They'd held it back! I am a pilot and they refuse to tell me things they know about the condition of the craft! The insult was worse than the danger! If the landing bag had deployed- and there was no way he could look out and see it, not even with the periscope, because it would be directly behind him- if it had deployed, then the heat shield must be loose and might come off during the reentry. If the heat shield came off, he would burn up inside the capsule like a steak. If he put the landing-bag switch in the automatic control position, then a green light should come on if the bag was deployed. Then he would know. Slowly it dawned!...That was why they kept asking him if the switch were in the off position!-they didn't want him to learn the awful truth too quickly! Might as well let him complete his three orbits- then we'll let him find out about the bad news!

Here, Wolfe evokes techniques of indirect dialogue to recreate Glenn's thoughts at this crucial moment, even dropping in use of the first person "I am a pilot" in a subtle soliloquy. Mostly, though, Wolfe's exclamation points reveal his own omniscience. Glenn's fears and frustrations (The insult was worse than the danger!) surface alongside the voices of pilots, wives, and monkeys, effortlessly woven into Wolfe's insightful narrative.

Questions

1. Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia takes a much different approach to character development. While Woofe explicitly reveals each person's thoughts and emotions, Chatwin remains external, presenting detailed observations while leaving assumptions to the reader as to the internal workings of his personas. What are the different effects of each technique, and is one more successful than the other?

2. Does Wolfe's frequent use of the exclamation point detract from his narrative, or even lessen its impact with repetition? Does it serve a great purpose besides mere punctuation?

3. Which voices throughout the book does Wolfe choose to personify the most? How does each contribute to the development of the narrative, as well as shape our definition of "the Right Stuff"?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 6 April 2011