In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe explores the elusive psychology that “makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Resdtone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse.” Wolfe’s portrayal of fighter pilot and astronaut culture reflects a paradoxical idea that these men are simultaneously hugely courageous and extremely foolish. His satiric, often implicitly mocking tone suggests that the mentality inspired by military pilot culture merits both awe and ridicule. In his characterization of the pilots’ typical extracurricular activities, Wolfe presents an expose of reckless egoism, a frat-boy culture that seems to exemplify foolhardiness. He candidly informs us:

More fighter pilots died in automobile accidents 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 Skol! and Quite right! to the military cycle of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, as if there were no other way. Every young righter 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.)

The tragic observation that “more fighter pilots died in automobile accidents than in airplanes” mocks the grim statistic that a Navy pilot faces a 23 percent likelihood of dying in an accident, an estimate that excludes deaths in combat. Wolfe states this outrageous notion in his characteristic matter-of-fact tone, forcing the reader to reflect on the potency and significance of the particulars themselves. Hans Gao, Brown ’14 writes: “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 Skol! Quite right!” but he never comes out and explicitly condemns it.” Gao claims that Wolfe “is more intent on capturing the tone and pitch of this subculture than passing judgment on it.” Although Wolfe effectively conveys the attitudes of the pilot culture, illustrating the tone in his use of dialogue (“it can be done, provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker”), his portrayal is far from unbiased. His repeated references to Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving implicitly communicate his disdain for the impossibly egoistic mentalities of the pilots. Wolfe’s sarcasm on the subject appears in his narrative of Chuck Yeager’s dilemma after breaking two ribs while Drinking & Riding (a horse) days before the date of his mission to break the sound barrier. Wolfe describes Yeager’s reaction to realizing his inability even to shut the cockpit door in his injured state:

So Yeager takes Ridley off to the side in the tin hangar and says: Jack, I got me a little ol’ problem here. Over at Pnacho’s the other night I sortaÉdinged my goddamned ribs. Ridley says, Whattya meanÉdinged? Yeager says, Well, I guess you might say I damned near like toÉbroke a coupla the sonsabitches. Whereupon Yeager sketches out the problem he foresees.

Not for nothing is Ridley the engineer on this project. He has an inspiration. He tells a janitor named Sam to cut him about nine inches off a broom handle. When nobody’s looking, he slips the broomstick into the cockpit of the X-1 and gives Yeager a little advice and counsel.

So with that added bit of supersonic flight gear Yeager went aloft.

Here, Wolfe’s characteristic sarcastic tone conveys this outrageous situation. Wolfe also introduces the paradoxical situation the pilots find themselves in as they begin training for Project Mercury. In his mission to break the sound barrier, we have to assume that the skill required on Yeager’s part was minimal; after all, he was able to complete the mission successfully in a semi-paralyzed state, with the aid of a broom handle. As the space mission progresses, the true nature of the work becomes clearer: high risk and relatively low skill, despite the perceptions of the general public, reading in Life magazine about the seven best pilots in the country. Yeager himself alludes to this in a conversation with reporters when he graciously states that he has no regrets about not being selected as an astronaut, remarking: “Besides, I’ve been a pilot all my life, and there won’t be any flying to do in Project Mercury.” In response to stunned reporters, he adds “a monkey’s gonna make the first flight.” Simultaneously developing the motif of Flying & Drinking, Drinking & Driving and repeatedly referring to the fact that the monkey will make the first flight, Wolfe implicitly calls attention to the incompetency of the pilots. However, his apparent distaste for the pilots’ juvenile conduct in no way undermines his admiration and respect for the actions of the pilots, which are irrefutably courageous and noble. Instead, Wolfe’s candid portrayal of the flawed values of the pilot culture gives us a deeper understanding of the elusiveness of human psychology, making The Right Stuff a nonfiction novel of great intrigue.

Questions

1. Throughout the text, Wolfe uses exclamation points constantly. What effect does this stylistic choice have on Wolfe’s tone and what we perceive of his attitudes towards the pilots?

2. Does Wolfe’s characteristic use of dialogue shape our perceptions of his attitude regarding “the right stuff”? How do we react to the fact that much of this dialogue is likely of Wolfe’s own invention?

3. How does Wolfe’s attitude towards his subject differ in The Right Stuff and “The Pump House Gang?” How are these differences reflected in the pieces’ respective styles and tone?

4. Wolfe’s ethnography of pilot subculture includes many character studies. How does Wolfe’s development and portrayal of characters differ from that of McPhee in The Crofter and the Laird? Do these authors have a similar purpose in mind?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 8 April 2011