Book Review: The Right Stuff

Have you ever read a book where the author was so obviously in love with his subject it just brought a smile to your face? I have. As you turn the pages, you realize that the man behind them doesn’t simply know what he’s talking about it, he loves what he’s talking about. His is no mere cold technical expertise, but a living breathing passion of the “stay up late and talk about it for hours” variety.

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Tom Wolfe is an author like that and The Right Stuff is a book like that – an epic account of the birth of America’s manned space program, an enthralling character study of seven exceptional Americans, and an adventure story jam packed with thrills. Aviation buffs will love it, but they’re not the only ones.

And the writing… boy oh boy, the writing. Smashing stuff. Ambitious, cheeky, poignant, learned, and shimmering with enthusiasm. Wolfe resurrects the past so thoroughly, and with such style, it’s intoxicating. Open this book and you’ll swear you’ve stepped into another age: The Space Age.

The book is written from several perspectives, beginning with that of Jane Conrad, a test pilot’s wife, as she grapples with the horrific possibility that her husband has perished in a plane crash. Wolfe then moves on to the legendary Chuck Yeager and his exploits in breaking the sound barrier. The perspective shifts once more as we’re introduced to the seven astronauts of Project Mercury: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.

“This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity,” writes Wolfe in the Forward. “What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?”

It is in answering this question – in helping the reader appreciate what drove these pilots and astronauts into the heavens – that his pen shines brightest. You might say he has the right stuff to write about the Right Stuff:

As to just what this ineffable quality was… well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life… any fool could do that… No, the idea… seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment – and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day… There was a seemingly infinite series of tests… a dizzy progression of steps and ledges… a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even – ultimately, God willing, one day – that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

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