In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe alters his audience's understanding of words like "pilot" and "astronaut" from mere occupations to the representation of an entire American subculture. Readers become lost in his invisible narration and immersion in the aviation — from their living rooms to the cockpit. By using the flyer's language, he can tell their story in as close to their own voice as possible from an objective outsider. In fact, the tension between observer and observed practically disappears. Wolfe never appears more at ease in his descriptions than when he conveys the fraternity-esque atmosphere of Edwards Air Force Base.
What made it truly beautiful (for a True Brother!) was that for a good five years Edwards remained primitive and Low Rent, with nothing out there but the bleached prehistoric shrimp terrain and the rat shacks and the blazing sun and the thin blue sky and the rockets sitting there moaning and squealing before dawn. Not even Pancho's changed — except to become more gloriously Low Rent. By 1949 the girls had begun turning up at Pancho's in amazing numbers. They were young, lovely, juicy, frisky — and there were so many of them, at all hours, every day of the week! And they were not prostitutes, despite the accusations made later. They were just . . . well, just young juicy girls in their twenties with terrific young conformations and sweet cupcakes and loamy loins. They were sometimes described with a broad sweep as "stewardesses," but only a fraction of them really were. No, they were lovely young things who arrived as mysteriously as the sea gulls who sought the squirming shrimp. They were moist labial piping little birds who had somehow learned that at this strange place in the high Mojave lived the hottest young pilots in the world and that this was where things were happening. They came skipping and screaming in through the banging screen doors at Pancho's — and it completed the picture of Pilot Heaven. There was no other way to say it. Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving and Driving & Balling. The pilots began calling the old Fly Inn dude ranch "Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club," and there you had it.
Wolfe's sexually charged, classically American imagery contextualizes the minutiae of air force base life in terms of the bigger picture — the state of the country. The luxury of drinking, riding in cars, and sleeping with women represents the national sigh of relief post World War II, paving the way for the domestic stability of the era that birthed astronauts.
1. What effect does the parenthetical "(for a True Brother!)" have on the role of the narrator?
2. Why does Wolfe capitalize "Low Rent", "Pilot Heaven" and "Flying & & Drinking and Drinking & Driving and Driving & Balling"? Is the reasoning the same in each instance?
3. What are the implications of the word "stewardesses" as a sweeping term for all the women who socialize at Pancho's?
4. Why does Wolfe refer to the women as "sea gulls who sought the squirming shrimp"?
5. How does Wolfe's narration differ from Chatwin and McPhee?
Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
Last modified 27 November 2007