As Tom Wolfe chronicles the destruction of the world in which "The Right Stuff" reigns supreme, he shows readers why pilots love the flying life. In this world, pilots must prove they can control a racing car while drunk, have every right to fly from Langley Air Force Base to California on a T-33 just for fun, and can't be stopped from breaking the sound barrier by a few broken ribs. But the Cold War picks up seven of these pilots faster than they can say Mach 1. Before they know it, they're on the cover of Life Magazine.

Not without paying a price. As the Mercury astronauts soon find out, they must relinquish control of flying that made their jobs so compelling in the first place. That's not the only kind of power the astronauts give up. The following passage shows how the chosen seven rationalized giving up control of how the masses perceived them by selling their stories to Life for $500,000. By trying to place the Life deal in a familiar context, the pilots refuse to acknowledge how much their world has changed.

For junior officers with wives and children, used to struggling along on $5,500 to $8,000 a year in base pay, plus another $2,000 in housing and subsistence allowances and perhaps $1,750 in extra flight pay, the sum was barely even imaginable at first. It wasn't real. They wouldn't see any of it for months, in any case . . . Nevertheless, the goodies were the goodies. A career military officer denied himself and his family many things . . . with the understanding that when the goodies came along, they would be accepted and shared. It was part of the unwritten contract. The Life deal even provided them with foolproof protection against the possibility that their personal stories might become all-too-personal. Although written by Life, the stories would appear in the first person under their own by-lines . . . "by Gus Grissom" . . . "by Betty Grissom" . . . and they would have the right to eliminate any material they objected to. NASA, moreover, would have the same right. So there was nothing to keep the boys from continuing to come across as what they had looked like at the first press conference: seven patriotic God-fearing small-town Protestant family men with excellent backing on the home front. [110]

Wolfe slyly slips into the voice of the seven traditionally ill-paid astronauts, speaking like one of them telling himself why this Life deal is great. The astronauts think of the completely foreign $500,000 paycheck as a typical bonus for a pilot, one of the goodies. They have control over what goes into the magazine, they tell themselves. Though Life doesn't print bad things about the astronaut, they take away the astronauts' power over how the public perceives them when they make them out to be heroes. The astronauts, so worried about losing flying power, don't realize they've also lost a form of power by allowing the media to make them products for national consumption. "Life had retouched the faces of all of them practically down to the bone," Wolfe explains later when describing the portrayal of the astronauts' wives in the magazine (123). To the media, and to NASA, the heavenly seven aren't much more than chimpanzees.

Questions

1. Wolfe first introduces the concept of "goodies" when explaining why Scott Carpenter has monkeypod tables in his living room. Goodies "were usually trivial by ordinary standards," Wolfe says (79). How is his use of the word in the above passage grotesque?

2. While the astronauts sign a contract with Life, Wolfe calls goodies "part of the unwritten contract." What effect does this contradiction have?

3. In the passage's last sentence, Wolfe makes "the boys" the object, instead of the subject. What effect does calling the astronauts "the boys" and putting them in a passive construction have?

4. Compare the following passage from "The Pump House Gang" with the passage above. What, if any, similar techniques does Wolfe use?

Something will pan out. It's a magic economy -- yes! -- all up and down the coast from Los Angeles to Baja California kids can go to one of these beach towns and live the complete surfing life. They take off from home and get to the beach, and if they need a place to stay, well, somebody rents a garage for twenty bucks a month and everybody moves in, girls and boys. Furniture -- it's like, one means, you know, one appropriates furniture from here and there. [24-25]

5. In the following passage from "The White Album," Joan Didion describes a feeling of displacement in the 1960s. She, like the astronauts, copes with her changing role. How are her techniques different? Is she, or Wolfe, more effective in creating a sense of fear?

"The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and I had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no "meaning" beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. [12-13]

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 27 November 2007