From the opening pages of "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe's chronicle of the development of America's space program, Wolfe mixes the grotesque and morbid with humor. Wolfe's heart wrenching depiction of the wives trying to determine whose husband has perished stuns the reader, but also cements Wolfe's position of authority on the subject of aviation and what it was like to be a pilot in the 1950s. He sprinkles in a heavy dose of humor as well, both to keep the story moving forward and to prevent the reader from realizing how absurd a task these pilots had.
Though usually this style of writing could become frustrating for a reader as the continuous tales of death become too much for a reader to bear, Wolfe does such a splendid job of relying on his best qualities as a writer that the book remains both authentic and gripping for a reader. By frequently injecting his dry humor into potentially horrific passages, expanding details to degrees where the reader insists that Wolfe was breaking the sound barrier right with Chuck Yeager, and by putting language to sensations and ideas that the reader never expects, Wolfe creates a fantastic story.
Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: "I've tried A! I've tried B! I've tried C! I've tried D! Tell me what else I can try!" And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? (In this moment when the Halusian Gulp is opening?) And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff. There was no national mourning in such cases, of course. Nobody outside of Edwards knew the man's name. If he were well liked, he might get one of those dusty stretches of road named for him on the base. He was probably a junior officer doing all this four or five thousand a year. He owned perhaps two suits, only one of which he dared wear around people he didn't know. But none of that mattered! — not at Edwards — not in the Brotherhood.
Grotesque? Absolutely. Horrific? Definitely. But this passage also perfectly depicts all the different emotions and realities that embody serving as a test pilot for the American government. Wolfe subtly forces the reader respect the pilots for dangers they faced, for their bravery and respect for their profession in the face of those dangers, and for the risking of their lives in complete obscurity. The reader is left in awe of the men who participated in these tests.
1. How does the reader respond to the morbidity of this passage? To depict a man plummeting thousands of feet to his death? To the fact that these men listened to the tapes and then told stories about the departed?
2. Wolfe's depiction of the plane in a tailspin is so vivid and he relies on so many detailed descriptions (think back to when Conrad finds Jennings) I was stunned when he relies on "I've tried A!" in this passage. It would obviously be difficult to get an actual recording and depict it accurately, but Wolfe is so good with other technical aviation terms it is surprising in this sense. Does the lack of specificity take anything away from the rest of the passage?
3. What do we make of the obscure terms "Halusian Gulp" and "Ahor" that Wolfe drops in here? Why does he use these terms as opposed to more common terms?
4. Exclamation points are everywhere in this passage, but do you think they are appropriate given the fact that a man is about to die here? Did you find the exclamation points and italicized words useful throughout the book?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
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