Books on GIF #20 — 'The Right Stuff' by Tom Wolfe


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'The Right Stuff,' by Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff

Back in January, my wife and I were stuck for a few extra days on Isla Mujeres in Mexico by a blizzard in New York. (There are worse places in the world to be stuck, for sure.) But I had a problem: I had finished the books I had brought with me for our vacation.* There were no book shops on the island, and the hotel where we were staying only had a bunch of uninteresting books that had been warped by the climate, many of which were in German. Luckily, we discovered a man who ran a book shop out of his house at night after he came home from work. It was full of all kinds of stuff he'd picked up from who knows where. Each volume was wrapped in plastic to protect it. That's where I found 'The Right Stuff.'

I was hesitant to buy it. I mean —

— and I have a strained relationship with his work. One the one hand, I really liked 'Radical Chic.' On the other, one of the worst novels I've ever read was 'A Man in Full.' It made me

and give up fiction for five years.** Luckily, 'The Right Stuff' is very good. For those who haven't seen the movie, which is also excellent, the book recounts the early years of the U.S. space program and displays Wolfe at his Capote-esque reporter-as-quasi-novelist heights. You learn, for example, what a complete badass was Chuck Yeager, for whom breaking the sound barrier in the X-1 is not the most insane of his exploits.***

Yeager is also essential to defining the term 'The Right Stuff.' In this context it means being the ultimate macho daredevil — the top of the test pilot/fighter jock pyramid. Only a few could lay claim to the mantle. There were those who thought the apex would be found in the space program: The first man into space would definitely have the Right Stuff and be at the top of the game. Then the first man to orbit the earth would join the club and supercede him. Then the man who was in orbit the longest. And so on. In this sense (and in others) John Glenn, a sort of anti-Yeager in this narrative, definitely had the Right Stuff.

The worst thing a Right Stuff aspirant could do would be to 'screw the pooch' — to mess up so bad it showed you didn't have the Right Stuff.**** Yeager didn't join the space program. For him, the Right Stuff was found flying prototype jets higher and faster than anyone else, and not becoming an astronaut asked to sit in a capsule and mimic tasks done by dogs and monkeys. He was a maverick.

I thought this book was great. It's deeply reported, you connect with the men it follows, and it's well written. I flew through it (pun intended).

'The Right Stuff,' by Tom Wolfe, was originally published in 1979 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and based on four articles he wrote in 1973 for Rolling Stone. It was printed by Bantam Books in 1980 and was reprinted 17 times by 1988. 368 pages. 

My rating:

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories,' by Robert Walser, 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers,' by Katherine Boo, and 'The Sympathizer,' by Viet Thanh Nguyen, among others.

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Thanks for reading!*****


* See reviews of 'Appointment in Samarra' by John O'Hara and 'The Seven Storey Mountain' by Thomas Merton, in upcoming newsletters. 
** True story. 
*** That would be where during World War II he shot down five German airplanes in one mission, becoming an 'ace in a day.' To qualify as a flying ace, generally you had to have shot down five or more enemy aircraft during your entire career. 
**** If I'm saying the Right Stuff here too much it's to prep you for Wolfe's using it all the time. 
***** Thanks especially to Donna, who copy edits these reviews!