The Right Stuff — Tom Wolfe

How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe” inspired me to re-read The Right Stuff, which is still excellent today and still worth dropping everything to read, today. In the foreward to my edition Wolfe writes that “This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity.” That “ordinary curiosity,” however, didn’t have ordinary results. He notices things that others don’t; few people noticed the possibility for the “Serious treatment of the drama and psychology of this new pursuit, flying high-performance aircraft in battle…” How many people don’t notice fields that today call for serious treatment yet don’t get them?

the_right_StuffIn the book Wolfe recounts, numerous times, the square footage of houses, and, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, what that square footage means. For one test-pilot couple—the wife essentially assumes her husband’s position in this world—an 1,100 square-foot-house is made bigger by the way the couple “designed it themselves.” The story is often about men who feel they are doing it themselves, though they aren’t: they’re part of a vast human network, and they’re made the figureheads of the network. The Right Stuff can be read well with Kelly: More than My Share of It All, since Kelly is about the engineer and engineering behind the flying machine and The Right Stuff is about the pilots and the lives of those strapped into the nose. Wolfe is a much better writer—there’s no way to ignore that—but while the perspectives differ the romance remains. Wolfe is fond of denigrating technocrats, or having his characters denigrate them—he does, repeatedly, in A Man in Full, for example—but that denigration may spring from the steady elevation of technocrats. Lewis notes as much:

The world needed them to be heroic pilots, and so they played the part, but no one (except for one American writer) thought to look more deeply into the matter. No one noticed the best story. Process had replaced courage. Engineers had replaced warriors. A great romantic way of life, a chivalric code, had been trampled by modernity. Not for the first time! (As Wolfe might write.) It’s the story of the American South in the 20th century—or at least the story a lot of white southern men told themselves.

Was there ever a real chivalric code? I’d guess not: a chivalric code is most useful as a way of waving one’s hand in one direction while the other hand picks a pocket or preps itself for a punch. But hierarchy! That exists and probably always will. Wolfe is towards the top of the hierarchy of writers: he notes, in an almost throwaway moment, how flying does things to “the gyroscope of the soul.” He writes, from the fighter pilots’s perspective, how in flying test craft the very top steadily leave others behind. And, moreover, the test works because it works on belief in masculinity itself:

Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself. Naturally, this was never mentioned, either. Yet there it was. Manliness, manhood, manly courage . . . there was something ancient, primordial, irresistible about the challenge of this stuff, no matter what a sophisticated and rational age one might think he lived in.

The romance and death are linked. Wolfe notes that “More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes.” But death in airplanes is news; death in cars is distressingly prosaic. Today, countless billions are spent fighting statistically unlikely terrorism—the snapping hand—while the other hand—the punch hand—is increasing the likely number of people who’ll die on the road. Romance seizes attention and attention is today the scarcest resource in existence. Wolfe gets that, I think, and got it long before most of the rest of us.

Wolfe is unafraid, too, to be enthusiastic:

My God!—to be part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!—even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch . . . in the X-1, the X-1A, the X-2, the D-558–1, the horrible XF-92A, the beautiful D-558–2 . . .

The sentence rambles on, itself feeling rocketlike. Edwards then is like Silicon Valley today. The center of the world may shift at times, but the keen listeners and seers attend not to where it’s been, but where it’s going. A pity that short-sighted noisy NIMBYs have made it nearly impossible for normal people to visit the center of the universe. Instead, that center has to spawn extra branches in Seattle, Austin, and even New York—New York!—New York is now cheaper than San Francisco. It’s a madness Wolfe would get, with his attention to housing and the status implied by housing.

One more moment from The Right Stuff. Wolfe writes:

To fighter jocks it was bad enough to have doctors of any sort as your final judges. To find psychologists and psychiatrists positioned above you in this manner was irritating in the extreme. Military pilots, almost to a man, perceived psychiatry as a pseudo-science. They regarded the military psychiatrist as the modern and unusually bat-brained version of the chaplain.

The fighter jocks were and are right. Maybe romance isn’t dead.

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