Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff gives the reader a glimpse, or rather a very thorough examination, of the lives of Air Force pilots and astronauts. The prospect of “being left behind” dominates the thoughts, actions and secret fears of these men as they navigate their professional, social, family and public lives. Their statements and actions have calculated effects, thus they are strictly controlled depending on the audience. With their wives, they are calm, cool and collected, and require the same outward behavior in turn. With their fellow pilots, they brag about cheating death, about not being afraid, about their immense skill and flyer’s instinct. With those inspecting or judging them, they have prepared answers and norms of behavior that either impress or fail to arouse suspicion. With the public, they have a Teflon faŤade of perfection, portrayed through the press. Wolfe develops each of these modes of behavior throughout the text, though he does fixate mostly on the social culture of the “True Brothers.”

Wolfe’s book opens with a character sketch of Jane and her husband Pete Conrad. When the reader meets Pete, he is possibly dead, but we get this lively description of him instead:

Pete was a short, wiry, blond boy who joked around a lot. At any moment his face was likely to break into a wild grin revealing the gap between his front teeth. The Hickory Kid sort, he was; a Hickory Kid on the deb circuit, however. He had an air of energy, a self-confidence, ambition, joie de vivre. Jane and Pete were married two days after he graduated from Princeton. [2]

This description comes from the point of view of someone like Jane, disconnected from his career and that culture. Wolfe’s story then shifts to focus on Chuck Yeager, but Pete Conrad returns to the story, with an acknowledgement that something sets him apart from his colleagues, all trying out to be astronauts.

There was an old-fashioned Huck Finn hickory-stick don’t-cross-that-line-or-I’ll-crawl-you streak in him. Unlike a lot of pilots, he tended to say exactly what was on his mind when aroused. He couldn’t stand being trifled with. Consequently he seldom was.

That was Conrad. Add the normal self-esteem of the healthy young fighter jock making his way up the mighty ziggurat . . . and the lab rat’s revolt was probably in the cards from the beginning. [65-6]

In Wolfe’s analysis, Conrad didn’t have the “it” factor because he couldn’t stand the hoops he was asked to jump through. In his medical and psychological evaluations in the astronaut selection process, he becomes frustrated by the invasive tests and constant observation. He decided to have a little fun instead.

But Conrad . . . well, the man is sitting across the table from Conrad and gives him the sheet of paper and asks him to study it and tell him what he sees. Conrad stares at the piece of paper and then looks up at the man and says in a wary tone, as if he fears a trick: “But it’s upside down.”

This so startles the man, he actually leans across the table and looks at the absolutely blank sheet of paper to see if it’s true —and only after he is draped across the table does he realize that he has been had. He looks at Conrad and smiles a smile of about 33 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was not the way to produce the Halo Effect. [81-2]

In this test involving the blank sheet of paper, Conrad cannot play the role he is supposed to and just give the satisfactory answers the other pilots did. He is breaking the mould of the good astronaut, the one who will sail through the selection process, and as a result, “he had been left behind” [88]. The example of Pete Conrad shows the reader just how important it is to follow the codes of behavior. By demonstrating the consequences of not playing the appropriate role, Wolfe reinforces the primacy of the behavioral culture of the True Brothers and, in a way, justifies to the reader, the amount of time he spends examining that culture. Although Conrad is redeemed and does become an astronaut later, he has missed out on being a star.

He was now an astronaut, officially, but not to the mobs of autograph seekers. They couldn’t have cared less. He looked like some little guy who carried bags for John Glenn.

. . .

Nevertheless, Conrad had made it this time, and that was the main thing. That was all that any really competitive military pilot upon the great ziggurat could focus on any more: becoming an astronaut. [326]

Questions

1. How does the arc of Pete Conrad function in The Right Stuff? What can we learn about the other characters in contrast with Conrad? What does he show us about the importance Wolfe places on the various aspects of his account?

2. Wolfe speaks authoritatively about the Air Force and many of the people involved in it, all without ever giving official explanations for his sources. How does he establish his credibility? Do you believe him when he uses direct quotes? For example, he narrates the scene of Conrad’s white paper test in the passage quoted above as if he were there, but was he? Or was it Conrad’s retelling of the story, or even a complete invention?

3. Wolfe has an excellent handle on the speaking and behavioral style of the pilots he describes, similar to the knowledge he showed about the Pump-House Gang, another tightly-knit group. Does his treatment of these two groups differ? How? Perhaps the following passage will help.

Pretty soon the California littoral will be littered with these guys, stroked out on the beach like beached white whales, and girls too, who can't give up the mystique, the mysterioso mystique, Oh Mighty Hulking Sea, who can't conceive of living any other life. It is pathetic when they are edged out of groups like the Pump House gang.

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 6 April 2011