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The Right Stuff (1979)
by Tom Wolfe
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312427565, Paperback)Tom Wolfe began The Right Stuff at a time when it was unfashionable to contemplate American heroism. Nixon had left the White House in disgrace, the nation was reeling from the catastrophe of Vietnam, and in 1979--the year the book appeared--Americans were being held hostage by Iranian militants. Yet it was exactly the anachronistic courage of his subjects that captivated Wolfe. In his foreword, he notes that as late as 1970, almost one in four career Navy pilots died in accidents. "The Right Stuff," he explains, "became a story of why men were willing--willing?--delighted!--to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero."
Wolfe's roots in New Journalism were intertwined with the nonfiction novel that Truman Capote had pioneered with In Cold Blood. As Capote did, Wolfe tells his story from a limited omniscient perspective, dropping into the lives of his "characters" as each in turn becomes a major player in the space program. After an opening chapter on the terror of being a test pilot's wife, the story cuts back to the late 1940s, when Americans were first attempting to break the sound barrier. Test pilots, we discover, are people who live fast lives with dangerous machines, not all of them airborne. Chuck Yeager was certainly among the fastest, and his determination to push through Mach 1--a feat that some had predicted would cause the destruction of any aircraft--makes him the book's guiding spirit.
Yet soon the focus shifts to the seven initial astronauts. Wolfe traces Alan Shepard's suborbital flight and Gus Grissom's embarrassing panic on the high seas (making the controversial claim that Grissom flooded his Liberty capsule by blowing the escape hatch too soon). The author also produces an admiring portrait of John Glenn's apple-pie heroism and selfless dedication. By the time Wolfe concludes with a return to Yeager and his late-career exploits, the narrative's epic proportions and literary merits are secure. Certainly The Right Stuff is the best, the funniest, and the most vivid book ever written about America's manned space program. --Patrick O'Kelley
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:41 -0400)
Men first flew into space in 1961, but until The Right Stuff was first published in 1979 few people had a sense of the most engrossing side of that adventure: namely, the perceptions and goals of the astronauts themselves, aloft and during certain remarkable odysseys on earth. It is this, the inner world of the early astronauts, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and their confreres, that Tom Wolfe describes with his extraordinary powers of empathy. He shows us the bidden olympus to which all ambitious combat and test pilots aspired, the top of the pyramid of the right stuff. And we learn the nature of the ineffable pilot's grace without which all else meant nothing. We see the men whose achievements dominated the flying fraternity in the late 1950's as the space age began, men like Chuck Yeager and Joe Walker, pilots of the first rocket planes, most notably the X-1 and the X-15. The selection of the Mercury astronauts in 1959 shook up the fraternity as thoroughly as had Yeager's breaking of the sound barrier twelve years before. Public excitement and concern over the space race with the Soviets immediately elevated the seven astronauts to the uneasy eminence of heroes, long before their first flight. We see the seven men, in the very moment of their idolization by the outside world, struggling to gain the respect of their peers within the flying fraternity, even to the point of altering NASA's original conception of the astronaut's role in keeping with the unspoken prerequisites of the right stuff. - Author web site.
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