For some reason, I kept putting off “The Right Stuff,” even though I plowed through Wolfe’s 700-page novels and consumed his early essays and articles with great interest. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’ve never really been interested in space or in astronauts, so I thought it would be a dull and science-heavy read.
I’m happy to report that I was absolutely wrong. “The Right Stuff” seems to be as seminal as “Bonfire of the Vanities,” a book which hops from protagonist to protagonist to give us an overview of the cultural impact that the space race had on Air Force pilots, astronauts, politicians, pilots’ wives, and ordinary citizens. It is epic in scope, and while there are moments when the acronyms become heavy and the flight terminology threatens to bog down the narrative, Wolfe wisely takes the approach that the science is secondary…the missions and their impact are what is most important.
Of particular note, I think, in crafting an engaging and interesting nonfiction novel is Wolfe’s opening chapter strategy: we begin with the subject of death, and spend a full chapter talking about the ridiculously high mortality rate for test pilots, zooming in on the image of a soon-to-be-widow, and the search through bogs and swamps for a downed pilot, the smoke and the fire and the body parts scattered through the trees. Wolfe opens the book with such drama and such danger, but he is still only discussing airplane pilots…the reader, though, is aware that we will soon shift to a discussion of much larger and more dangerous rockets, space shuttles, and we suddenly have an understanding of how much could have gone wrong, the measure of these men’s courage in the face of so many unknowns.
A remarkable book, but a brilliant opening strategy.