Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff investigates the Mercury Seven’s launch into fame and their eventual nosedive into the debris of forgotten American idols. In exploring the experiences of these pilots and their families, Wolfe provides a very human examination of the individuals who became legends and heroes. Wolfe’s portrays the men thoroughly and with an unforgivingly intimate provision of detail. His nonfiction work fails to have a dry sentence; by using exclamations, frankness, and sometimes profanity, he achieves an engaging and informative tone. Wolfe chronicles, not by listing facts and dialogue, but by lending the subjects voices, opinions, and personality — even if the subject is an ape.

The vets led the ape out of a van. As the mob closed in and the flashbulbs began exploding, the animal — brave little Ham, as he was now known — became furious. He bared his teeth. He began snapping at the bastardsÉThis was immediately — on the spot! — interpreted by the press, the seemly Gent, as an understandable response to the grueling experience he had just been through.

But in giving this subject a voice and perspective, Wolfe reveals his own opinion of those with whom the ape interacts. Wolfe’s assumption of the ape’s voice allows the reader to detect what he finds deplorable:

The stresses the ape was reacting to were probably of quite another sort. Here he was, back in the compound where they had zapped him through his drills for a solid month. Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this - [178]

Wolfe’s uses language here that is casual and direct, even crude. He engages the reader in his intimate description of an anecdote that otherwise, if lacking Wolfean discourse and instead a historical recount, would be dry.

Questions

1. Readers cannot verify the historical accuracy of many details, but whether or not the ape actually came from Africa to New Mexico does not matter much in reading this passage. Why is that? Do we trust that other details, such as the name of the ape, are factual? Do we trust Wolfe as an overall honest author?

2. Can the reader assume through Wolfe’s language and tone his pity for the ape and disgust with the press? Wolfe refers to the scientists as “a bunch of humans in white smocks”. Where else is this disgust with human idolization present throughout the book?

3. Wolfe’s “The Pump-House Gang” also explores the lives of idols — those of Californian surfers in the 1960s. The essay contains the same casual and personal voice that guides the reader through The Right Stuff. Just as in his book, Wolfe includes in his essay extraneous details and stories:

Today "The Strip" is almost completely the preserve of kids from about 16 to 25. It is lined with go-go clubs. One of them, a place called It's Boss, is set up for people 16-25 and won't let in anybody over 25, and there are some terrible I'm-dying-a-thousand-deaths scenes when a girl comes up with her boyfriend and the guy at the door at It's Boss doesn't think she looks under 25 and tells her she will have to produce some identification proving she is young enough to come in here and live The Strip kind of life and-she's had it, because she can't get up the I.D. and nothing in the world is going to make a woman look stupider than to stand around trying to argue I'm younger than I look, I'm younger than I look. So she practically shrivels up like a Peruvian shrunken head in front of her boyfriend and he trundles her off, looking for some place you can get an old doll like this into.

Both the ape and the “old doll” are unrelated to the main subjects of Wolfe’s works. Why does Wolfe include the ape’s story and the short quip about the girlfriend? What do the details provide for the overall depiction of his subjects?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 7 April 2011