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The Right Stuff [Paperback]

Tom Wolfe
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 30 2001
When the future began...

The men had it. Yeager. Conrad. Grissom. Glenn. Heroes ... the first Americans in space ... battling the Russians for control of the heavens ... putting their lives on the line.

The women had it. While Mr. Wonderful was aloft, it tore your heart out that the Hero's Wife, down on the ground, had to perform with the whole world watching ... the TV Press Conference: "What's in your heart? Do you feel with him while he's in orbit?"

The Right Stuff. It's the quality beyond bravery, beyond courage. It's men like Chuck Yeager, the greatest test pilot of all and the fastest man on earth. Pete Conrad, who almost laughed himself out of the running. Gus Grissom, who almost lost it when his capsule sank. John Glenn, the only space traveler whose apple-pie image wasn't a lie.

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Tom Wolfe began The Right Stuff at a time when it was unfashionable to contemplate American heroism. Nixon had left the White House in disgrace, the nation was reeling from the catastrophe of Vietnam, and in 1979--the year the book appeared--Americans were being held hostage by Iranian militants. Yet it was exactly the anachronistic courage of his subjects that captivated Wolfe. In his foreword, he notes that as late as 1970, almost one in four career Navy pilots died in accidents. "The Right Stuff," he explains, "became a story of why men were willing--willing?--delighted!--to take on such odds in this, an era literary people had long since characterized as the age of the anti-hero."

Wolfe's roots in New Journalism were intertwined with the nonfiction novel that Truman Capote had pioneered with In Cold Blood. As Capote did, Wolfe tells his story from a limited omniscient perspective, dropping into the lives of his "characters" as each in turn becomes a major player in the space program. After an opening chapter on the terror of being a test pilot's wife, the story cuts back to the late 1940s, when Americans were first attempting to break the sound barrier. Test pilots, we discover, are people who live fast lives with dangerous machines, not all of them airborne.

Wolfe traces Alan Shepard's suborbital flight and Gus Grissom's embarrassing panic on the high seas (making the controversial claim that Grissom flooded his Liberty capsule by blowing the escape hatch too soon). The author also produces an admiring portrait of John Glenn's apple-pie heroism and selfless dedication. By the time Wolfe concludes with a return to Yeager and his late-career exploits, the narrative's epic proportions and literary merits are secure. Certainly The Right Stuff is the best, the funniest, and the most vivid book ever written about America's manned space program. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


“An exhilarating flight into fear, love, beauty and fiery death ... magnificent.”

“It is Tom Wolfe at his very best ... technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic — The Right Stuff is superb.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Breathtaking ... epic ... There are images and ideas in The Right Stuff that glisten like a rocket screaming to the heavens.”
Los Angeles Times

“Romantic and thrilling ... One of the most romantic and thrilling books ever written about men who put themselves in peril.”
The Boston Globe

“It’s magic ... the best book I have read in the last ten years.”
Chicago Tribune

Also by Tom Wolfe:

The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
From Bauhaus to Our House
The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby
The Painted Word
The Right Stuff
Mauve Gloves & Madmen
Clutter & Vine
In Our Time
The Pumphouse Gang
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

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First Sentence
Within five minutes, or ten minutes, no more than that, three of the others had called her on the telephone to ask her if she had heard that something had happened out there. Read the first page
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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Zenith of American Culture June 17 2004
My boss lent me this book in about 1982. He also had just invited me to become a member of the Southern California Soaring Club (gliders). For me, it was the most important and inspiring book of its decade. As a kid, the astronauts were, to me, mythic figures who risked their lives to prove what we were worth as Americans. Several of them died in the process. The space race was not some society social. These guys embodied what President Kennedy said, that "...We do not do these things because they are easy. We do them because they are hard." That, to me, epitomizes the meaning of the term, The Right Stuff. Kennedy's statement resonated with me at the age of nine. Tom Wolfe's book brought me down from the clouds right to ground zero. All the faults and foibles of the astronauts, and the process of becoming one, grabbed me as incredibly real and authentic. It also convinced me that heroes often don't have names like Smith and Jones. And they all don't look like Gregory Peck. And that their wives sacrificed so much, and kept their best face forward, where others would have collapsed under the weight. It is also an incredibly funny book (the red boots, and other anecdoetes).
This is inspiring nonfiction of the highest order. It was the near prospect of imminent death that brought it all together. They were modern samurai. It was a huge gamble, and we all went for it. Other reviewers have commented elequently on Tom Wofle's prodigious writing talent, so I will leave it there. Bottom line, you can count on one hand novels that captured the full depth and breadth of intense emotion that surrounded the space race of the 1960s. Particularly in the late 70s and early 80s. Jim Lovell's Lost Moon is a good example.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Six star entertainment June 18 2003
By Brad4d
Tom Wolfe gives a brilliantly entertaining and inspirational book about one of the most colorful chapters in recent American history -- from the first supersonic piloted flight up to the early Sixties, when astronauts completed the beginning of America's space program. Wolfe writes about "the right stuff--" a blend of correct judgment, coolness, and the ability to get the job done, no matter what the danger. Wolfe rarely depends on technical stuff, so the book will appeal to those who know or care little about aviation or space, and there's little to deter the squeamish, ither. The author shows the period's bright side (the accomplishments in spite of the danger, the dopamine-flowing release after a job well-done, the intense exhilaration of it all) , and the dark side (the fears of the families, the tragic deaths from minor lapses in luck or judgment, the tedious egomania of many involved in the programs).
This book epitomizes the bright and dark side of Wolfe's school of writing, too. Above all, Wolfe can be as riveting and as entertaining as you'll find -- "truth can be funnier than fiction." I have heard how Wolfe caught the essence of what someone wanted to say even better than the one who said it, and he sure puts you into the thick of the action. The author gives a legitimate and interesting perspective. Nevertheless, this style plays heavily on your emotions, with all the problems that can involve, and the book is not terribly objective -- a purely entertaining incident can assume more importance than it should.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A great ride Dec 11 2002
By A Customer
Tom Wolfe's rollicking style (exclamation points!) can take a little getting used to, but once you settle in, you'll find that this is not just a fun-to-read book, but a well-written one too.
First, Wolfe clearly did his research, filling the story with details and facts which prove illuminating (I do wish he included dates more frequently; sometimes it's hard to tell when an event is taking place). His detailed descriptions of the flights of Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Chuck Yeager practically put you in the pilot's seat.
Second, he manages to capture the emotions and feelings of the time, showing the competitive nature that drove the astronauts, how their wives wanted respect, and how the public adored their new space heroes.
Finally, he ties it all together with some good philosophical insights. The Right Stuff! Single Warrior Combat!
My only lament about the book is that Tom Wolfe makes it look so easy. Too many writers since then have tried to imitate his style -- but without doing the fundamental research that makes a good story. The result can be tedious and superficial writing.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Wolfe's prose push the envelope April 14 2002
This non-fiction tells more than the story of America's race for space - but actually tells a deeper story: of America's push into the next frontier and how it discarded the heroes and heroism that led the way. Beginning with the early years of the jet age - when jets were prone to disintegrate at transonic speeds if they didn't just fail, Wolfe charts the conquest of the sonic barrier by Chuck Yeager. When the Russians jump the gun and pioneer the artificial satellite (and the nuclear-capable ICBM that lofted it into orbit) the US responds with its own programs - which fail miserably. The triumph of Gagarin's and Leonov's space flights spur the Americans to use unproven and flimsy hardware, and respond with apparently less success. (Unlike the first Soviet space flights which achieved orbit, the first American astronauts flew short suborbital missions; though superior technology allowed the west to loft satellites comparable to Sputnik but much smaller, conventional wisdom held the grapefruit-sized satellites as inferior). Though military test pilots had been flying (and dying) in virtual anonymity for years, those chosen to fly the American rockets become national heroes before the first launch. Wolfe parallels the civilian Mercury program that lofted the first Astronauts with the exotic but military X-15 program (which did not reach as high or as fast, but was at least flown by a pilot like an airplane) as if paralleling a more promising program with one that people were more interested in. The distinction is between the heroism that the Mercury astronauts stood for, and the heroism X-15 pilots (who snapped up no book deals) actually embodied.
"The Right Stuff" is a triumph. Though it doesn't tell the whole story of the space program, Wolfe sets up an ingenious theme.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Right Stuff
A terrific look back at an America made innocent through fear of the Soviet challenge in space and rendered jaded by its own triumphs.
Published 13 months ago by Mark Housego
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read to understand the start of space flight
There was a time when space flight launch and missions were covered on live TV not a 30 second clip at the end of the news. I read this book when it first came out. Read more
Published on April 11 2010 by Garry Hoffman
"The Right Stuff" BY Tom Wolfe's book was a wonderful American story about the Mercury space program that told the tale of U.S. Read more
Published on June 7 2004 by Steven R. Travers
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Stuff
Although Tom Wolfe's way of writing may seem strange and at times weird, the story of these test pilots and pioneer astronauts is a classic. Read more
Published on May 9 2004 by Alex Salazar
5.0 out of 5 stars Another page-turning book
Hey, I stayed up way to late reading this book our national effort to win the space race. Included in this book is the contributions of the pilots from Joshua treed, dusty desert... Read more
Published on May 7 2004 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my all time favorite books...
This book is just a thoroughly enjoyable read. Funny, exciting, charming, moving; what more could you want? Read more
Published on July 4 2003 by L. R. Travis
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Movie, Even Better Book
"The Right Stuff" by Thomas Wolfe details the manned space race between Russia and the United States. It focuses on the United States' effort to put a man into space. Read more
Published on May 29 2003 by Travis J Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Shooting for the Stars
I opened this book with a limited interest in the Space Race, jet pilots, or Tom Wolfe, but have become fascinated by all three. Read more
Published on Sept. 7 2002 by Z. Blume
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book
At first, this book looked ok. When I started to read it I really got an interest in the Space Race Era. Read more
Published on March 6 2002 by Ryan Williams
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