The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Exploiting remarkable access and trust from his subjects with his otherworldly insight and story-spinning voice, Tom Wolfe jimmies his way inside the heads of the first seven astronauts and their elite test pilot forerunners -- particularly Chuck Yeager -- to tell an incomparably detailed and insightful story of their heady run as the soul of the American fighting and exploratory spirit in middle 20th century.
Wolfe subtly mocks journalists of the time for accepting the military-approved, Time/Life-facilitated whitewashed public image of the astronauts foisted onto the public. Despite his snarky perspective, Wolfe also buys into the spirit of the propaganda and its ability to lift and focus the public's yearnings, channeling them toward the greater, we're-all-in-this-together, Cold War-flavored ethos of the space race.
The most righteous stuff in the book is in the first two thirds. Toward the end, when the figurative booster stages have departed and descended into splashdown, Wolfe is left with the crumbs of the inspiring and raucous narrative to patch together the disappointing end of the affair. But there is more than enough here to make this an essential piece of period Americana.
In the Audible original production, Dennis Quaid -- one of the stars of the 1983 movie adaptation -- admirably inhabits the soul of Tom Wolfe while telling the story in a smooth, conversational flow. Unfortunately, age has added an occasional slur to his delivery, but Quaid manages to overcome the distraction with an uncanny ability to nail the various accents, speech patterns and points of emphasis the spirit of Wolfe's material cries out for. It's hard to imagine any other narrator doing a better job.
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