When I was a very small boy, I knew the names of three famous people: Captain Kangaroo, John Kennedy and John Glenn. Only the first, as the daily audio-visual accompaniment to my cornflakes, was vivid to me; the other two I had trouble keeping straight in my mind. I understood that one was an astronaut and one was tragically dead. It seemed intuitively likely to me that these should be traits of the same person, since being an astronaut was obviously far more dangerous than being a president. So for some time I had this vague sense that we loved John Glenn, or Kennedy, so much because he had died in the attempt to conquer space.
This much I did know: whichever John was the astronaut, he was the first man in space. I knew this for some years, and cannot now remember when I discovered that John Glenn was not even the first American in space, much less the first human.
I am sure that that was a painful discovery, but once I learned the name Alan Shepard I treasured it, in part because he spelled his first name just as I spelled mine, and in part because hardly anyone else seemed to know who he was. This seemed very odd to me: Shouldn't The First American in Space be a title of great honor? It was only years later, when I read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, that I came to understand the complex national pathologies -- the multi-front competition with the Soviet Union, the problem of knowing who your celebrated gladiators might be as long as your war stays Cold -- that had produced the idolization of Glenn and the (comparative) marginalization of Shepard.
Soon after The Right Stuff was published, I read it in a state of constant stunned awe at its Electric Kool-Aid Acid prose, of course, but also in deep admiration for the acuity with which it made sense of an extraordinary moment in American history. Last month I read it again and had precisely the same response.
First, there are the set pieces. Wolfe has always excelled at these, going back to his justly legendary Junior Johnson profile for Esquire, but for my money his best ones are in The Right Stuff: The bravura opening chapter, with the test-pilot wives waiting in terror for the uniformed man to come up their front walk, and the little Indians marching out in their bridge coats to attend the funeral of an Indian who just didn't have the right stuff; Wolfe's explanation for how every airline pilot in America acquired the "West Virginia poker-hollow drawl" of Chuck Yeager; and, above all, the book's greatest glory, the moment-by-moment account of the astronauts' triumphal entry into Houston on July 4, 1962, an event that culminated in an enormous barbeque in the Houston Coliseum presided over by the aged stripper Sally Rand, who "shook her ancient haunches at the seven single-combat warriors.... It was two o'clock in the afternoon on the Fourth of July, and the cows burned on, and the whiskey roared goddamned glad to see you and the Venus de Houston shook her fanny in an utterly baffling blessing over it all."
Utterly baffling, yes, but Wolfe tells the story in such a way that you just know that he would give anything to have been there, would have gladly eaten as much seared beef and drunk as much whiskey as they had put in front of him; he would have joined Sally Rand in blessing the warriors, though perhaps without shaking his fanny. Wolfe is not at his best when his targets are fat and easy to hit, or when he thinks they're fat and easy to hit: the modern artists of The Painted Word, the architects of From Bauhaus to Our House, the vacuously libidinous collegians of I Am Charlotte Simmons all offer him too many set-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down moments. If Le Corbusier had not existed Tom Wolfe would have had to invent him, just for the infinite possibilities of mockery. But he admires the astronauts just about as much as LIFE magazine did, though with an occasional nudge and wink.
The ironies of The Right Stuff are always balanced by affinities and admirations. This is not something that the set pieces, brilliant though they are, can fully convey. Wolfe understands and approves of a society's need for heroes -- especially the risk-taking, self-endangering kind of hero -- and merely regrets the political circumstances that led to the eclipse of the test-pilots who had preceded the astronauts and from whose ranks the astronauts were largely drawn. When some journalists asked Chuck Yeager whether he regretted not being chosen for the Mercury program -- certain PR-savvy people in the government had decreed that only college graduates would be eligible, and Chuck didn't fit that bill -- he said that he was happy for some younger folks to have their chance. (John Glenn is two years older than Yeager.) "Besides," he added, "I've been a pilot all my life, and there won't be any flying to do in Project Mercury." When the assembled scribes expressed some confusion about this pronouncement, Chuck merely commented, "Well, a monkey's gonna make the first flight."
Wolfe is clearly on Yeager's side here, and throughout the story. The astronauts were brave, all right -- a refrain throughout the first half of the book is "Our rockets always blow up" -- but pilots like Yeager were at least as brave, and had to be almost infinitely more skilled and resourceful. Wolfe ends his book with a brief but spectacular coda, a revisiting of Yeager testing aircraft in the California high desert and nearly getting himself killed when a jet spins out of control. When we last see him, Yeager is standing on the desert floor by a dusty roadside with his parachute tucked neatly under his arm, using a knife borrowed from a random driver-by to try to cut the glove away from a badly burned index finger.
The skin on one side of his face is crusted over, roasted by the same spilled rocket propellant that fell on his finger; his eye lies under the crust somewhere, perhaps destroyed. But Chuck Yeager just stands there and patiently tries to cut off his glove without cutting off part of his hand. "My God," says the driver who had seen from his car a man falling out of the sky, "you look awful." Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, John Glenn or Alan Shephard or Gus Grissom or another of the Magical Seven is getting ready for one more damned ticker-tape parade.