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 was first published—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.
The focus shifts to the seven astronauts. Wolfe traces Alan Shepard's sub-orbital 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 and concludes with a return to Yeager and his late-career exploits. The Right Stuff is the funniest, the most literary, and the most vivid book ever written about America's manned space program.
"Absolutely first class . . . Improbable as some of Wolfe's tales seem, I know he's telling it like it was."—The Washington Post
"Splendid . . . It shows our propensity to manufacture heroes, and, just as quickly, to forget them; it shows how a scientific program was exploited for political advantage; it provides a revealing character study of seven exceptional Americans."—The Saturday Review
"Technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic . . . The Right Stuff is superb."—The New York Times Book Review
"One of the most romantic and thrilling books ever written about men who put themselves in peril."—The Boston Globe
"Crammed with inside poop and racy incident . . . fast cars, booze, astro groupies, the envies and injuries of the military caste system . . . Wolfe lays it all out in brilliantly staged Op Lit scenes."—Time
"An exhilarating flight into fear, love, beauty, and fiery death."—People
Reviews from Goodreads
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