THERE HAS NEVER EVER been anything cosmic in Tom Wolfe's assessments of humankind. "If I would do a story on the president, I'd just be interested to know what the daily life of the plain man from Georgia is like. What the kicks are," Wolfe says in the Virginia-gentleman voice that matches his antebellum-beau apparel so perfectly.
"I have a feeling that the reason presidents always run again has nothing to do with a sense of destiny or devotion to party or love of country. It has to do with limousines," Wolfe says. "With being treated like a baby -- or a king, depending on how you look at it. With having private elevators. And breakfast is always waiting for the president. Even for a senator it's marvelous. But for a president -- you could be the worst president who ever came along, and people will still jump all day for you."
So, in 1972, when Tom Wolfe began his down-to-earth chronicle of the nativity of NASA's Project Mercury, he was not hampered by awe of the voyage into the Unknown, nor was he seeking any Great Abstractions. "I was interested in who do you get to sit on top of these enormous rockets, on top of really enormous amounts of liquid oxygen. Highly volatile stuff. The Saturn 5, as I remember, was 36 stories high. You just light a match and varoom! it goes up. My god, I wondered, how do they sit there?"
Rolling Stone had sent Wolfe to report on the launch of the last moon shot, and in three frenetic weeks, he wrote the four magazine articles which three other books and seven years later became the basis of The Right Stuff. "I was going to convert that series into a book very quickly -- so I decided to make it a study of what goes into the making of an astronaut. I very quickly found out that there's nothing really very unique about the background of astronauts," Wolfe says.
Twenty of the first 23 astronauts happened to be first sons. But Wolfe, a first son himself, didn't put much stock in that factor. Like most of the astronauts, Wolfe was also a WASP whose early obsessions included baseball batting averages. Of course, going intellectual -- he had gotten himself a PhD in American Studies at Yale -- was a fairly serious deviation from the flying-jock pattern. But Wolfe never deluded himself -- he was no candidate for the top of any rocket.
Nearly all of the astronauts were test pilots. "So there you go," Wolfe says. "The way to approach it was to find out what test pilots were like -- and this led to the whole theory of 'the right stuff.'"
Wolfe crisscrossed the continent to talk to test pilots and ex-test pilots, former astronauts and failed astronauts -- to the whole conscientious and highly conservative brotherhood. The right stuff, he discovered, was an amalgam of stamina, guts, fast neural synapses and old-fashioned hellraising -- military macho which had been emboldened by the exigencies of the cold war.
But it wasn't until late 1977 that he was able to sit down and begin a draft of The Right Stuff. "Originally the book was going to go through the whole space program up to Skylab, but I finally got up to 450 pages and I said that's it, I think I've got a book."
Wolfe also had a hunch about the nature of bravery. "I'm now convinced that physical bravery only happens in a social context. There has to be a sphere of people, a fraternity which sets standards and whose approval is all-important to you -- and there has to be no honorable alternative to bravery," he says. "Otherwise you're just not going to have brave people."
That finding, of course, contrasts sharply with the shape of Wolfe's own career -- and the dissonance just may be the reason for Wolfe's writer's block toward The Right Stuff. Fame -- figuratively an upgrading from cerebral corporal to captain -- came when he decided to break away from the conventions of the newspaper fraternity. It was then that he joined (some say led) the rebellion of the new journalists and began substituting exclamation points and utterly un-homeric catalogues (all the pimples, blackheads and festering sores of everyday life) for the standard, bland lead paragraphs full of manly who-what-wheres.
After a three-year stint at The Washington Post -- "a typical story would be nine inches, about 360 words. Writing to that length was really bad for you, for your mind" -- Wolfe emigrated to Manhattan. There Esquire let him run on to 10,000 words for "There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Baby." On his first assignment as a feature writer for the now-defunct Herald Tribune Wolfe asked the city editor how long he wanted the story to be. "The city editor looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'What do you mean how long do I want it?' I said, 'Do you want six graphs? 10 graphs?' and he said, 'Just stop when it gets boring.'"
That was 1962. Now, at 48, Tom Wolfe frequently looks back. But he'll never go back. "New York is still the company town for writers," he says. "If you want to be in the towel business, you should go to Kannapolis, North Carolina. If you want to write, you should join the other cottage weavers in New York."
New York is, after all, the most pockmarked and populated city in America, and Wolfe is at his barbed best when he is writing the real stuff about Manhattanites. That, clearly, is more natural to him than speculating on the aspects of eternity. "Space exploration really doesn't excite me in the slightest," Wolfe says. And he means it. "In science-fiction books, wherever a spaceship lands, there's always some superior civilization. If they're not superior morally and mentally, they have some extraordinary physical powers that earthlings can't deal with. Well, I have a feeling that the opposite is true -- that there's really not much out there."