Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff vividly uncovers the realities of American astronaut culture, observing its contrivances and debunking its myths. Tracing the story of the seven astronauts who ultimately become NASA’s first Project Mercury team, Wolfe explores a pilot world founded upon “the fighter jock’s life” — that is, “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving and the rest of it.” In doing so, Wolfe richly depicts this peculiar subgroup as a political and code-filled pocket of American life, where being an “astronaut” signifies much more than one might think:

From the very beginning this “astronaut” business was just an unbelievable good deal that it seemed like tempting fate for an astronaut to call himself an astronaut, even though that was the official job description. You didn’t even refer to the others as astronauts. You’d never say something such as “I’ll take that up with the other astronauts.” You’d say, “I’ll take that up with the other fellows” or “the other pilots.” Somehow calling yourself an “astronaut” was like a combat ace going around describing his occupation as “combat ace.” This thing was such an unbelievable good deal, it was as if “astronaut” were an honorific, like ‘champion’ or “superstar,” as if the word itself were one of the infinite variety of goodies that Project Mercury was bringing your way.

However, not everyone gets a shot at this “unbelievable good deal”: only those few who possess that indefinable crass quality of bravado so ambiguously called “the right stuff” ultimately reach this level of “’superstar’” status… and not before successfully passing

A seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even — ultimately, God willing, one day — that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

Treating astronauts as mythical — even godly — heroes throughout The Right Stuff, Wolfe not only displays his satirizing tone, but calls into question the legitimacy of the esteem given to those “special few”: as Rachel Lebine ’07 writes, Wolfe hypes “their merit and prestige to comical proportions.” Furthermore in bringing to life, with pilot lingo and fighter jock parlance, the people, places, and stories of these fighter jocks, Wolfe dispels preconceived notions of the “‘astronaut business” and sheds light on this peculiar American subculture. What Wolfe ultimately conveys then is that things are never what they seem: beneath these proudly championed American “’astronauts’” lie complicated caricatures who recklessly face death in the face and carelessly drive drunk through the lanes of their superstar lives, leading readers to question whether those with “the right stuff” are truly American heroes or just drunk superstars?

Questions

1. As seen in one of the above passages and throughout The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s often uses the second person. What effect does Wolfe hope to achieve in his narrative by doing so? Is he successful?

2. Wolfe’s new journalism style forces the reader to question his credibility as an author of fact. Yet one of the themes of The Right Stuff seems to be the very debunking of what one might take to be fact in the first place. How does Wolfe’s fictionalized non-fiction strengthen or weaken his argument?

3. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying”, Vivian remarks that “truth-telling” is a “morbid and unhealthy faculty”. Furthermore, Vivian asserts that “no one can possibly believe” in the “probability” of “novels which are so lifelike.” Would Vivian approve of Wolfe’s new journalism style? Why or why not?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 7 April 2011