This is the story of the early (American) pioneers of supersonic flight (breaking the sound barrier) and the space race. And it is astounding.
Early on the book tries to nail what it was in the personalities of the men – test pilots from the Navy and Air Force – who risked their lives to go faster or higher than the others, to prove to the world that they were one of the special few at the top of their game. They had the skills, the ego, the guts… the right stuff.
As the book progresses it changes from expressing the concepts and ideas as to what constitutes the Right Stuff to a very character-driven history, and it definitely gets better as it goes along. The first few chapters are written very much in the Tom Wolfe style – with lots of exclamation! – and quite a lot of repetition. The repetition used for stylistic effect works well. The repetition to ram an idea down your throat, not so much.
But then the story starts to blossom, the forcefulness of the writing style fades into the background and you get enveloped in the feel of the events. It is like you are being given privileged access to a special time and place; you are invited to participate in the thrill of being on the cutting edge. You are getting insight into achievements that will change history and the way that people look at the world.
The narrative focuses very much on the people involved but undeniably the two stars are ace pilot Chuck Yeager and the astronaut John Glenn. It was amazing how little I knew about the rest of the people, in particular the other 6 astronauts chosen to take part in the early space missions. I kept myself away from Wikipedia so that their stories were new to me, but these are names that have faded in the collective memory. How?
By the end of the book I was enthralled, and when I finished I had to spend a little time just thinking about the scale of the achievements involved and the sheer joyous ride I had been on. I’m sure there are several excellent and more conventional histories of the space race, but Tom Wolfe has pulled off something very special here. He has managed to bring out the emotion and the pure magic of the events.