In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe captures the unique culture of fighter pilots, a breed of men who risk their lives on a daily basis despite low pay and abysmal conditions. Their world runs on the currency of guts and bravo — a crazy but internally consistent set of rules that determines a man’s status by his ability to look death in the face, and yawn. Being a pilot is as much about the attitude, the lifestyle outside the cockpit, as it is about actually flying the plane. Their culture encourages — no, glorified casual recklessness in a way that is sometimes dangerous:
More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes. Fortunately, there was always some kindly soul up the chain to certify the papers “Line of duty,” so that the widow could get a better break on the insurance. That was okay and only proper because somehow the system itself had long ago said Skoll and Quite right! to the military cycle of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, as if there were no other way. Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)
In any other profession, a worker who risked not only his own life but also million-dollar machinery and the lives of others because of a late night out would be considered irresponsible and immature. But at the airbase this attitude is so pervasive it has been worked into the bureaucracy, practically institutionalized. Wolfe quietly mocks the government-sponsored frat-culture with a whiff of sarcasm, “That was okay and only proper because somehow the system itself had long ago said Skoll! Quite right!” but he never comes out and explicitly condemns it. More intent on capturing the tone and pitch of this subculture than passing judgment on it, Wolfe provides the reader with parentheses-clad translations of pilot talk in all their egotistical glory. Because when you’re at Edwards, it is not enough to simply hurtle through the air in a small metal tube at supersonic speeds — no, if you really have the right stuff, you’ll do it while drunk.
1. Wolfe makes much ado of the danger pilots put themselves in, citing statistics like a 23% death rate and detailing the extensive string of funerals their wives attend. But he glosses over the fact that “More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes.” What does this decision say about his portrayal of the pilots?
2. Although Wolfe picks apart the media’s glorification of the pilots and astronauts, he also “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.” (Colleli ’08). Is Wolfe also guilty of type-casting the pilots, hero-worshipping them in his own way?
3. Wolfe likes to shift between different voices, often within the same paragraph. What voices does he use in the passage above? How does his use of voices differ from that in “The Pumphouse Gang”?
4. The pilots never use the words “bravery” or “courage,” preferring euphemisms such as “the right stuff.” How does this manipulation of language illuminate the pilots' beliefs and attitudes?
5. Both Wolfe and Didion portray people of celebrity status differently than they were in the mainstream media. However, Wolfe still romanticizes the pilots to some degree, while Didion adopts an existential, hollow tone. Which one do you think is the more reliable narrator?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 27 November 2007