The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

One sentence plot
As the space age begins, the top fighter jet pilots across the US struggle over whether and how to evolve into astronauts.

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The Review
Yesterday my wife and I cycled 9 miles in the scorching heat to the lovely Silver Spring AFI cinema to see The Right Stuff. I was intrigued to see how this multi-Oscar-winning film had dealt with the book on which it was based.

The Right Stuff is the third of Tom Wolfe’s books and I still don’t know what to make of him. If Bonfire of the Vanities was perhaps the portrait of a city in time, and I am Charlotte Simmonds the portrait of a woman in place, The Right Stuff is the portrait of a genre of person in history.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read an ostensibly fiction book that is about a genre of person rather than about individuals. The book follows what I’m led to believe is a reasonbly accurate account of the US side of the space race, and that story in itself is fascinating.

The star of the story is the genre of men who go by the monicker of ‘fighter jock’ – the creme de la creme of military pilots, and by definition the posessors that elusive, indefinable quality, the ‘right stuff’. It’s that ‘right stuff’ that propels them to achieve feats of superhuman courage and skill in the air, and to be impossibly cool about it. And Wolfe, who clearly thinks these guys are amazing, writes brilliantly about how they are created and how they operate.

I also enjoyed the secondary star of the book – the genre of wives of the men who posess the ‘right stuff’ and who spend their lives living on miserable military bases, hoping their husbands won’t die (a reasonable preoccupation – he often will, it seems), and that they will one day reap the rewards of their stressful lives.

I loved the idea of evolution of the astronaut as the glitzy celebrity pilot (despite the lack of real need of any more skill than a chimp) while behind the scenes, rocket jet pilots with the ‘right stuff’ are doing things that are harder, cooler, and yet unrecognized by Life Magazine – and slowly going from the coolest guys in town to so last season as NASA catches the collective imagination. I liked the juxtaposition of the pilots trying to be cool, to embody the ‘right stuff’ while at the same time being told they are superfluous and being goaded into celebrity soundbites. With the triumph of glitz over grit, is the ‘right stuff’ extinct, or has it just evolved, I wonder.

It’s not the typical sort of book I would enjoy. But the whole thing is interesting and exciting and wry and entertaining, and educational, and very human. And I hope that it is indeed historically accurate as the drama and detail of those early space flights are now etched in my memory, thanks to Wolfe.

And did the film do the book justice? I think that given the challenges of a book driven not by individual characters but by a philosophy and a historical context, it did an excellent, compelling job. But somehow, it missed that quality of the genre of character – it didn’t depict the very nuances of the “right stuff” that the book made me appreciate so brilliantly. The film was great on its own merit, but for me, it’s the unusual, quirky book that makes me care most.

I cycled home from the cinema, zooming down Beech Drive like a fighter jock trying to break the sound barrier. But I probably hit 10mph and braked responsibly at the junction. I certainly do not have the ‘right stuff’ – but I really enjoyed the insight into the lives of people who do. I wonder which Wolfe book to try next?

The Verdict: 4/5 shoes

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