Books: Skywriting with Gus and Deke

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Although Wolfe touches on space-race politics and the psychology of cour age, his views are neither unconventional nor meant to be. As our finest verbal illustrator of trends and fashions, he is interested in the truths that lie on surfaces. These truths are not superficial, though they are frequently overlooked in an age partial to overexplanations and psychic temperature taking. A 19th century novelist of manners would have understood perfectly. Readers in the 21st century will too, when they turn to Wolfe to find out the kind of stuff their grandparents were made of. — R.Z. Sheppard

Nearly 15 years ago, a vanilla tornado named Tom Wolfe whirled out of Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune's Sunday magazine supplement to announce the coming of the pop-rock culture. Readers accustomed to spending their weekends with articles like "Brazil: Colossus of the South" were suddenly snapping awake to such Wolfean fare as "Oh, Rotten Gotham —Sliding Down Into the Behavioral Sink," "Natalie Wood and the Shockkkkkk of Recognition" and "Muvva Earth and Codpiece Pants." The prose itself rollicked with words like "lollygagging" and "infarcted," embedded in pages that were covered with a confetti of punctuation marks.

The writer was equally eye-catching: a tall, pale, boyish figure whose trademark was a gleaming white suit. He looked like a collegian out of Held's Angels, or a swell in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Raised in Richmond, Va., Wolfe spoke softly and courteously, exuding an air of the right stuff. But he wrote like a hit man. "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!" was a surprise attack on the genteel New Yorker magazine and its shy, venerated editor, William Shawn. A shocked cultural establishment struck back. An outraged Joseph Alsop and E.B. White called Wolfe's piece brutal, misleading and irresponsible. Richard Goodwin sent a bolt from the White House. "I didn't think I'd survive," says Wolfe, "but it taught me a lesson. You can be denounced from the heavens, and it only makes people interested."

He put that lesson to use again in 1970 when he discovered an invitation on a colleague's desk announcing a cocktail party honoring the Black Panthers. The event was to be held at the Manhattan home of Maestro Leonard Bernstein. Wolfe attended, steno pad and ball point ready. The result was Radical Chic, another heretical howler that captured the well-intentioned banalities of "limousine liberals." A few years later, in The Painted Word, Wolfe took on the New York art establishment, setting forth the impish thesis that a few powerful critics controlled what was painted and sold.

Wolfe is certainly a man who would rather lead than follow. The Right Stuff grew out of his "curiosity about what made men shoot dice with death." What he discovered in thousands of miles and more than 100 interviews was that pilots lived "in a world where there are no honorable alternatives." Wolfe has already done all the research on Gemini, Apollo and Skylab, and plans to write about them as well. Why did the current book take six years? "It was a structural problem," he says. "There are no surprises in the plot and a great many characters."

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