24 November 2021

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Not to be insensitive, but I also felt like my experience reading The Right Stuff  by Tom Wolfe involved me crashing and burning. I felt it started off really strong and I couldn't wait to learn more about this career/culture/obsession, but after 100 pages I started to lose interest. Not to be a bummer, but I also had sky high expectations for the Philip Kaufman movie adaptation, but found it too long and too boring. This is also my first experience reading anything by Tom Wolfe! 

First off, I have no complaints about Wolfe's writing style. I have always wanted to pick up one of his books because he is often listed alongside Joan Didion for the development of New Journalism. My dislike of The Right Stuff will not deter me from reading his other work - fiction or non-fiction. He also really hooked my interest early on in the book, especially with how he sets up how dangerous being a pilot is:

In time, the Navy would compile statistics showing that for a career Navy pilot, i.e. one who intended to keep flying for twenty years ... there was a 23 percent probability that he would die in an aircraft accident. This did not even include combat deaths, since the military did not classify death in combat as accidental." 

The book begins with a young couple (literally younger than me!) who are attending their dozenth funeral. The pilots are gossiping in a corner about whether their colleague's death was his own fault, and the wives are anxiously organizing food for the wake. I like how Wolfe shows how they are both comfortable and uncomfortable at funerals ... they've been to too many so they know the routine, but half the attendees are quietly worrying if they'll be planning the next one.

Scene from the movie adaptation The Right Stuff

Wolfe introduces how dangerous the job is while also describing how relentless and obsessed those are who sign up for it. The pilots in The Right Stuff spend all their time either flying, talking about flying, or driving drunk on the local high ways. 

The world was used to enormous egos in artists, actors, entertainers of all sorts, in politicians, sports figures, and even journalists, because they had such familiar and convenient ways to show them off. But that slim young man over there in uniform, with the enormous watch on his wrist and the withdrawn look on his face, that young officer who is so shy that he can't even open his mouth unless the subject is flying - that young pilot - well, my friends, his ego is even bigger! - so big, it's breathtaking!" 

I normally love stuff that deals with obsession ... two of my favourite non-fiction books of all time are Into Thin Air (Everest) and The Orchid Thief (flowers). But for some reason, I found the subjects of The Right Stuff to be unbearable. I kept just thinking about how miserable their families must be living in these tiny towns on incredibly small salaries while waiting to get a call about their husband's death. I know climbing Everest is also choosing to risk your own life, but for some reason it read differently to me this time. 

The rest of the story mostly deals with the space race. I found this to be the biggest dragging section in the book. I didn't mind when they talked about breaking the sound barrier, but the rest of it took me forever to get through. Overall, flying is clearly a topic I am not interested. Now I know! 

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