Although Tom Wolfe pulls the same voice-shifting tricks in The Right Stuff as he did in "The Pump House Gang," his mocking tone is not quite as biting. He manages to be a little more delicate, but doesn't refrain from his signature manipulation of the narrator's identity. Once again he goes inside a group of closely-knit creatures of habit in order to disclose the unspoken beliefs and unwritten creeds which they follow religiously. He mythologizes the pilots, the US and the Soviet Union, and consequently the entire situation, by often speaking with the voice of the press or of the American people who put the pilots and astronauts on such a pedestal:
They would not be going into space to do actual combat; or not immediately, although it was assumed that something of the sort might take place in a few years. But they were entering into a deadly dual in the heavens, in any event. (Our rockets always blow up.) The space war was on. They were risking their lives for their country, for their people, in "the fateful testing" versus the powerful Soviet Integral. And even though the archaic term itself had disappeared from memory, they would receive all the homage, all the fame, all the honor and heroic status...before the fact . . . of the single-combat warrior.
Thus beat the mighty drum of martial superstition in the mid-twentieth century. . . .
There was something gloriously goofy about it.
This phrase following talk about warriors, albeit mockingly, illustrates that the narrarator, be it Wolfe or someone else, is oddly knowledgeable in World History but is really just a regular guy.
The congressmen in the room just wanted to see them, to use their position to arrange a personal audience, to gaze upon them with their own eyes across the committee table, no more than four feet away, to shake hands with them, occupy the same space on this earth with them for an hour or so, fawn over them, pay homage to them, bathe in their magical aura, feel the radiation of their righteous stuff, salute them, wish upon them the smile of God...and do their bit in bestowing honor upon them before the fact...upon our little Davids...before they got up on top of the rockets to face the Russians, death, flames, and fragmentation. (Ours all blow up!)
. . . "Besides," he added, "I've been a pilot all my life, and there won't be any flying to do in Project Mercury."
That was all it took. The reporters looked stunned. In some way they couldn't comprehend immediately, Yeager was casting doubt on two undisputable facts: one, that the seven Mercury astronauts were chosen because they were the seven finest pilots in America, and two, that they would be pilots on the most daring flights in American history.
The thing was, he said, the Mercury system was completely automated. Once they put you in the capsule, that was the last you got to say about the subject.
"Well," said Yeager, "a monkey's gonna make the first flight."
The reporters were shocked. It happened to be true that the plans called for sending up chimpanzees in both suborbital and orbital flights, identical to the flights the astronauts would make, before risking the men. But to just say it like that!...Was this national heresy? What the hell was it?
Fortunately for Yeager, the story didn't blow up into anything. The press, the eternal Victorian Gent, just couldn't deal with what he had said. The wire services wouldn't touch the remark. It ran in one of the local newspapers, and that was that.
But f'r chrisssake...Yeager was only saying what was obvious to all the rocket pilots who had flown at Edwards.
Wolfe compares the astronauts to ancient "single-combat fighters" in the passage above, hyping their merit and prestige to comical proportions. After describing the similarly amusing admiration of the congressmen, he assumes their voice as a collective narrator: "our little Davids". He continues to swap narrative voices, obviously at times, as in the last line: "But f'r chrissake . . . ". The astounding number of both subtle and evident switches allows Wolfe to satirize anyone and everyone. His credibility as a narrator and the fact that he is ostensibly inside all these people's or groups of people's heads have a symbiotic relationship: his articulate knowledge of the Air Force, the space program in its infant stages, engineering, and the astronauts', the astronauts' wives, the reporters', the congressmen's, and ultimately the American people's thoughts makes him believable as a journalist, so much so that the many shifts and swaps in narrator's voice do not seem odd.
1. "Thus beat the mighty drum of martial superstition in the mid-twentieth century" appears to be a significant sentence; the words "Thus", "mighty", and the phrases "martial superstition" followed by "mid-twentieth century" lend to an extremely mocking tone. Of who? The astronauts? How the American people viewed the astronauts? The press? How the press depicted the astronauts?
2. Wolfe leaves out quotation marks at times when it is obvious that a conversation is taking place, and also at times in the middle of a paragraph when the speaker's identity is not clear. What effect does the lack of quotation marks have? Why do some statements have quotation marks and others don't? If none of the statements had quotation marks would the device be less effective in doing what it does?
3. The word "fragmentation" seems to be a strange end to the list of potential fates for the astronauts, following "Russians, death, flames". Why not something more violent, to more accurately describe the would-be situation? Is this intentional? Is "fragmentation" a more likely end to the training, media circus, and hopefully successful space flight than death and flames?
4. In "The Pump House Gang", Wolfe pretends to be with the kids, on their side, in order to satirize them. To what extent, if at all, does he do this to the astronauts? The press? How is the satire in The Right Stuff different than that in "The Pump House Gang"?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 22 November 2007