Tom Wolfe, rest in peace

If you read one book by Tom Wolfe, it should be The Right Stuff.

What makes The Right Stuff great, and not merely very good, is that Wolfe is not content to merely write about manly men doing manly man stuff. He gets to that eventually, but first – and probably alone (or at least the first) among the chroniclers of the early years of the space program – Wolfe asks what would not be obvious others: what was it like to be the wife of a test pilot when an unwritten part of his job description was a high risk of death; when every month or even every week, another pilot in the squadron crashed his fighter plane and was “burned beyond recognition.” And then would come another funeral. And another. Funerals that got monotonous in their repetition: “And the bridge coats came out and they lifted a prayer about those in peril in the air and the bridge coats were put away and the little Indians were incredulous.”

As for the wives, the answer to Wolfe’s question is, it drove some of them literally insane:

A couple of days later Jane (Conrad) was standing at the window of her house in North Town Creek. She saw some smoke rise above the pines from over in the direction of the flight line. Just that, a column of smoke; no explosion or sirens or any other sound. She went to another room, so as not to have to think about it but there was no explanation for the smoke. She went back to the window. In the yard of a house across the street she saw a group of people…standing there and looking at her house, as if trying to decide what to do. Jane looked away—but she couldn’t keep from looking out again. She caught a glimpse of a certain figure coming up the walkway toward her front door. She knew exactly who it was. She had had nightmares like this. And yet this was no dream. She was wide awake and alert. Never more alert in her entire life! Frozen, completely defeated by the sight, she simply waited for the bell to ring. She waited, but there was not a sound. Finally she could stand it no more. In real life, unlike her dream life, Jane was both too self-possessed and too polite to scream through the door: “Go away!” So she opened it. There was no one there, no one at all. There was no group of people on the lawn across the way and no one to be seen for a hundred yards in any direction along the lawns and leafy rhododendron roads of North Town Creek.

Then began a cycle in which she had both the nightmares and the hallucinations, continually.

Writing like this completely shattered me when I first read it when I was seventeen or eighteen. I won’t say it inspired me to get into writing, or journalism. I don’t know if any one writer is responsible for that. But it went a long way toward helping me appreciate fine writing for what it is: something thought-provoking that moves you, grips you, makes you laugh in one sentence and cry in the next, and helps you understand things in ways you hadn’t considered before. This holds for both fiction and non-fiction.

I read this morning that Tom Wolfe died. He was eighty-eight. In college one of my favorite ways of spending my free time (apart from rugby) was reading what I wanted to read, rather than what I was supposed to read. Wolfe was one of those authors. He was a pioneer in what is called literary journalism, or new journalism. Examples of the genre are Truman Capote’s In Cold Bloodand Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But The Right Stuff is the masterpiece.

Rest in peace, Tom Wolfe, and may you have exchanged your trademark white suit for the white garments of heaven.

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