Yes: it’s high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program’s launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.
But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe “Mr. Overkill” hasn’t really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn’t a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as “the brethren” or “The True Brothers”) are obsessed with having the “right stuff” that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as “the eternal Victorian Gent”: when Walter Cronkite’s voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, “There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!” And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he’s with near-drowing Gus Grissom (“Cox. . . That face up there!—it’s Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . .”); he’s with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn (“Now. . . they truly owed her”); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he’s with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard’s being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight (“Oh, yes! I’ve been here before! And I am immune! I don’t get into corners I can’t get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer”). Certainly there’s much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom’s foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.
But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won’t be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.
Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979
Page Count: 370
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979