Wolfe the Respectful Joker

Doug Fretty '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

[Home —> Nonfiction —> Authors —> author —>Leading Questions]

Condescension is one of Wolfe's favorite tools, and he wields it more precisely in The Right Stuff than in "The Pump House Gang." That essay sometimes chided its subject with too arch a tone that put both the kids and the author in a negative light. In The Right Stuff, Wolfe manages to revere his subject even as he skewers it. The impression is that no matter how many jokes he cracks about the space program, Wolfe applauds the single combat warriors and their mission to close the gap and smash the mighty Integral. Wolfe employs a few typical tactics to keep his tone in check in the following passage about an embarrassing Redstone test.

The dignitaries were all esated in grandstands, and the count-down was intoned over the public-address system: "Nine eight seven six" and so forth, and then: 'We have ignition!'and the mighty belch of flames bursts out of the rocket in a tremendous show of power . . . .The mighty white shaft rumbles and seems to bestir itself—and then seems to change its mind, its computerized central nervous system, about the whole thing, because the flames suddenly cut off, and the rocket settles back down on the pad, and there's a little pop. A cap on the tip of the rocket comes off. It goes shooting up in the air, a tiny little thing with a needle nose. In fact, it's the capsule's escape tower. As the great crowd watches, stone silent and befuddled, it goes up to about 4,000 feet and descends under a parachute. It looks like a little party favor. It lands about four hundred yards away from the rocket on the torpid banks of the Banana River. Five hundred VIPs had come all the way to Florida, to this goddamned Low Rent sandspit, where bugs you couldn't even see invaded your motel room and bit your ankles until they ran red onto the acrylic shag carpet—all the way to this rock-beach boondock they had come, to see the fires of Armageddon and hear the earth shake with thunder—and instead they get thisthis popand a cork pops out of a bottle of Spumante. It was the original Project Vanguard fiasco all over again, except that it was worse in a way. At least with Vanguard, back in December of 1957, the folks got lots of flames and explosion. It at least looked halfway like a catastrophe. Besides that, it was very early in the game, in the contest for the heavens. But this—it was ridiculous! It was pathetic!" [164-165]


"It was pathetic," says Tom Wolfe's highly patriotic book. He uses the word pathetic without sounding like a nay-sayer or a sneering outsider. How does that work? Think also of the statement on page 167 that "Bob White was a pilot from beginning to end! . . . He didn't splash down in the water like a monkey in a bucket!" A monkey in a bucket? How does Wolfe get away with describing heroes in this way?

The rant in the middle of the passage about the Low Rent Cape, its bugs, and its shag rugs would be a little irresponsible and tiresome coming from the book's author. Instead, it feels like a quote, or something overheard. How does Wolfe achieve that effect without inserting quote marks, or even changing paragraphs?

What is the capitalization of "Low Rent" intended to do? Imitate the way people say the words? Suggest that the phrase stands in for the place like a title, a sign?

Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe Victorian courses

Last modified 12 April 2005