Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Right Stuff

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

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