Books: Skywriting with Gus and Deke

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THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 436 pages; $12.95

May 5, 1961: the day Alan Shepard scratched his back on the edge of space and America entered the manned space race. At last. Since 1957 there had been all those Sputniks—Mechtas and Vostoks—beeping overhead, clockwork reminders that the heavens were in the hands of the godless Bolshevik. The script had gone awry. A nation only 40 years from feudalism was secretly lobbing what looked like customized samovars at the free world while priapic Vanguards and Jupiters wilted on their pads or exploded prematurely for all the world to see. Democracy could be embarrassing.

The oaken voice of Walter Cronkite echoes in the memory of America's entry into the competition. There were resonant suspense at lift-offs and tremolos of pride at splashdowns: America still had the right stuff, Wolfe's buzz word for the indefinable attributes of the astronauts. His long awaited book about test pilots and the Mercury flights recalls those years through the eyes and nerve endings of the first astronauts, their wives and even the conditioned chimpanzees who rode prototype capsules downrange from Cape Canaveral: The chimp's &"heart rate shot up as he strained against the force, but he didn't panic for a moment. He had been through this same sensation many times on the centrifuge. As long as he just took it and didn't struggle, they wouldn't zap all those goddamned blue bolts into the soles of his feet. There were a lot worse things in this world than g-forces ... The main thing was to keep ahead of those blue bolts in the feet!... He started pushing the buttons and throwing the switches like the greatest electric Wurlitzer organist who ever lived..."

The jazzy mix of facts and fictional technique, Céline's ellipses, the gadzooks delivery and a presumptuous ape's-eye view that would have curled Henry James' worsteds—these are unmistakable parts of Wolfe's style. It is still called the New Journalism, although the form is as old as the Beatles and the author is now 48. Like the Beatles, Wolfe has had a revolutionary impact on his field. His imitators have spread like dandelion fluff, and his work still stirs furious debate.

Yet even the creakiest practitioner of the inverted-pyramid style of journalism will have to agree that behind the mannered realism of The Right Stuff thumps the heart of a traditionalist. The organizing principle of the book is an old-fashioned fascination with, and admiration for, the test pilots and fighter jocks of the U.S.'s first astronaut team: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. In addition, the book has a superhero, Chuck Yeager, a World War II combat veteran who broke the sound barrier in 1947 and rewrote aviation history in experimental rocket-powered planes of the '50s and early '60s.

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