Venus de Silo by

Dan Jacobson

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
    Cape, 436 pp, £6.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 224 01443 9

There are several reasons why it is possible, or perhaps even desirable, to disapprove of Tom Wolfe’s writing. It is sometimes verbose; occasionally it is too pleased with its own effects; it is bespattered with arch capital letters and exclamation-marks, in a manner that reminds one of Winnie the Pooh; despite the last comparison, its cadences and vocabulary are deplorably un-English. However, there are also many reasons (of a far more compelling kind, in my view) why it is possible greatly to admire his writing. It can be quick, vivid, high-spirited, resourceful, full of surprise, extremely funny; because the author delights so much in what he detests, and because he has such an uncontrollably mischievous impulse to debunk what he most esteems, every sharply observed detail is carried on an exhilarating surge and backwash of feeling. Furthermore, his prose style is capable of building up to certain big moments, and then sustaining them eloquently over many pages.

All this is true, at any rate, when Wolfe has a subject worthy of his gifts: not necessarily an ‘important’ subject, but one which has a real trajectory, one which tells a story, one to which he has given a plot. I put that word in italics (Wolfe-fashion) because it simply does not appear, so far as I can recall, in his long introduction – in effect, an elaborate defence of the kind of writing he himself has produced – to an anthology of the ‘New Journalism’.[*] (Even the word ‘story’ is used in the introduction only in the most perfunctory way.) Wolfe defines the New Journalism as that mode of reporting which uses the techniques of the traditional novel in order to describe real-life events. Among these techniques, according to his own account of them, are ‘scene-by-scene construction’; realistic dialogue; the creation of character, if necessary by the adoption of the point of view of one or another participant in the action; and, above all perhaps, the naturalistic recording of physical and social detail. These, he says, are the devices that ‘gave the realistic novel its unique power’; all are available to the journalist who has taken the trouble to interview and observe his subjects thoroughly; they have been more or less abandoned by most serious contemporary novelists. Now whether or not this last statement is true, it does seem to me extraordinary that anyone attempting to catalogue the sources of the ‘unique power’ of the realistic novel should omit story and plot from his list. Stories and plots do not lie about inertly within events; they have to be ‘made up’; they are, indeed, the sequential and causal connections which an author has perceived between events, and in terms of which he gives them their meaning.

This point is not made in order to defend some special asset or privilege of the novel against the depredations of a jumped-up journalist. On the contrary. What I have said seems to me to apply to any narrative, whether it be about real or imaginary events; and on the whole I welcome and sympathise with Wolfe’s attack on some of the pieties that have come to surround the novel as a literary form, and his readiness to exploit its techniques for his ends. Yet the fact remains that without a real story to tell about this or that social phenomenon he has happened to observe, the New Journalist can cut a rather uneasy figure. His obligation to mime the role of the insider – of the quarry, of the subject itself – can actually be at odds with his duties as a reporter. Every now and again, he has to drop the mask, and the language, of the first in order to throw some gobbet of information and explanation to the pathetic, eager-to-learn nothings and nobodies outside, who are his readers. The shift can be disconcerting for both parties. But when he comes before us with a sustained, coherent story to tell, when he is driven by his sense of the intricate and often unexpected connections between public and private experience, embarrassments of this kind disappear. Then, if he has the gifts of a Tom Wolfe, he can write a satire like ‘Radical Chic’ about an occasion at which he was actually present; or, as he does in The Right Stuff, he can re-create the lives of a group of people whom he has got to know many years after the central episodes he is concerned to describe.

The group Wolfe writes about in The Right Stuff are the Mercury astronauts: the first Americans to be hurled into space. The names of some of them – John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom – will no doubt sound like the music of a distant drum in the ears of older readers. In order to write about these men, Wolfe has to write also about their wives; about the corps of test pilots from whom most of the astronauts were chosen; the ‘ordinary’ Navy and Air Force fighter-pilots from whom those test pilots had in turn been selected; the psychologists and physiologists who examined them; the politicians who were eager to be associated with them; even about the chimpanzees who rode in the Mercury capsule before any humans were entrusted to it. We learn about the ‘operant conditioning’ to which those wretched chimpanzees were subjected, and about the different kind of conditioning which helped to transform the astronauts from obscure test pilots into public figures and great national heroes – temporarily at least. En route, we visit a great many different places, from the White House to the Florida resort town of Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral, where ‘even the beach … was Low Rent. It was about three hundred feet wide at high tide and hard as a brick. It was so hard that the youth of post-war Florida used to go to the stock-car races at Daytona Beach, and then, their brains inflamed with dreams of racing glory, they would head for Cocoa Beach and drive their cars right out on that hardtack strand and race their gourds off, while the poor sods who were vacationing there gathered up their children and Scotch-plaid picnic coolers and ran for cover.’

One of the central ironies of the tale is that far more courage and skill had been demanded of the men when they had flown as combat and test pilots, on the miserable pay of regular serving officers, than when they were being fêted as heroes and showered with money and perks by a grateful nation. What is more, they knew it. So did their peers: not least among them, those who had continued to test the rocket-powered, high-performance aircraft that had seemed to offer the United States an alternative route into space. How could it not be known to them? All the pilots who appear in the book are presented as men not only of exceptional courage but also of exceptional competitiveness, with the fiercest pride in their individual performance and the sharpest sense of their place on what Wolfe calls the ‘ziggurat’ of achievement within their profession. At every point they had been in the habit of making an exact measurement of their capacity to push themselves and their machines further than anyone else had done; and then, as proven possessors in their own eyes of ‘the right stuff’, to do it again and again, in flight after flight.

Now they were transformed into ‘spam in a can’. Passengers. Chimpanzees. Subjects in an experiment. They reacted to this in different ways. All tried to get the designers of the capsule to give them some instruments to wield within it, and windows through which to look out of it, so that the man supposedly in charge could feel like a pilot – not like ‘a lab rabbit curled up motionless … with his little heart pitter-patting and a wire up the kazoo’. Some tried to turn the tables, in more or less cunning ways, on the psychologists and physiologists who were tormenting them. (So did the chimpanzees.) They also competed strenuously with one another to secure the nomination for the first flight. None dropped out. When the press presented even the heaviest drinkers and biggest womanisers among them as devoted family men and pious churchgoers, they went along with it. They went along with virtually everything. Their reward was not only much fame and some money and the awed gaze of everyone around them, including the hundreds of their co-workers in the Space Administration, but also the solitary yet rigidly controlled and monitored flights that all but one of them eventually made.

Despite their similarities, each flight was different from the others; each had its own anxieties and frustrations. One capsule sank into the sea on its return, very nearly taking its pilot with it. Another almost ran out of fuel. Another was erroneously thought by Mission Control to be in bad trouble with its heat shield: a fear which the authorities on the ground tried to keep as long as possible from the astronaut himself. One pilot deliberately set about ‘showing up’ his brethren by using far less fuel for a much longer flight than any of the others had made. Each flight is treated by the author as one set-piece among others of a very different kind. The book reaches a climacteric of sorts in the description of a triumphal welcome given by the city of Houston to the astronauts, their wives, and their children, which culminates in a gigantic barbecue inside the Houston Coliseum. There, amid the stench of roasting beef and bourbon whisky, the exhausted guests are treated to an elaborate, prancing strip-tease performed by a grotesquely aged but once-famous dancer, the ‘Venus de Houston’.

The book is a rich one, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to quote from it, or at least to continue pointing at particularly effective passages within it. There is Lyndon Johnson, then Vice-President of the United States, trying unsuccessfully to get into the Glenn household, while John Glenn is waiting for blast-off, so that he can ‘pour Texas all over’ Mrs Glenn and the children. There is Gus Grissom visiting a factory making parts for the Mercury project, and telling the workers, ‘Well … do good work!’ – a tongue-tied plea or command which produces an ecstasy of loyalty and pride in his audience. Early in the book there are some wonderful descriptions of what it is like to take off in a supersonic fighter from a desert airfield at dawn, and what it is like to land on an aircraft-carrier in mid-ocean. For all the bravura of his style, and for all the months and years of research which must have gone into producing the book, Wolfe is remarkably self-effacing in the way he tells the story. He simply never appears in it. This is entirely appropriate, somehow, for the story is ultimately one about self-transcendence: how we hunger for it, and how our technology serves that hunger; the risks a few of us are prepared to take in order to achieve it; and how very difficult and sometimes humiliating it is to succeed.

[*] The New Journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, Picador (1975).