Tom Wolfe had the right stuff

Photo: Tom Wolfe at the White House

Tom Wolfe died this week. His prose was a revelation.

He was 88. Back in 1979, at the height of powers, he published The Right Stuff, a novel about the experimental pilots at the center of the space program. When I taught writing to homeschooled teenagers, I used a passage from this book to jolt them out of their complacency and show them how nonfiction writing could grab you by the throat and place you into a moment.

This, according to Tom Wolfe, is what it feels like to attempt to land a plane on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean.

[I]t was not until they were actually standing on the carrier deck that they first began to wonder if they had the proper stuff, after all. In the training film the flight deck was a grand piece of gray geometry, perilous, to be sure, but an amazing abstract shape as one looks down upon it on the screen. And yet once the newcomer’s two feet were on it… Geometry—my God, man, this is a… skillet! It heaved, it moved up and down underneath his feet, it pitched up, it pitched down, it rolled to port (this great beast rolled!) and it rolled to starboard, as the ship moved into the wind and, therefore, into the waves, and the wind kept sweeping across, sixty feet up in the air out in the open sea, and there were no railings whatsoever. This was a skillet!—a frying pan!—a short-order grill!—not gray but black, smeared with skid marks from one end to the other and glistening with pools of hydraulic fluid and the occasional jet-fuel slick, all of it still hot, sticky, greasy, runny, virulent from God knows what traumas—still ablaze!—consumed in detonations, explosions, flames, combustion, roars, shrieks, whines, blasts, horrible shudders, fracturing impacts, as little men in screaming red and yellow and purple and green shirts with black Mickey Mouse helmets over their ears skittered about on the surface as if for their very lives (you’ve said it now!), hooking fighter planes onto the catapult shuttles so that they can explode their afterburners and be slung off the deck in a red-mad fury with a kaboom! that pounds through the entire deck—a procedure that seems absolutely controlled, orderly, sublime, however, compared to what he is about to watch as aircraft return to the ship for what is known in the engineering stoicisms of the military as “recovery and arrest.” To say that an F-4 was coming back onto this heaving barbecue from out of the sky at a speed of 135 knots… that might have been the truth in the training lecture, but it did not begin to get across the idea of what the newcomer saw from the deck itself, because it created the notion that perhaps the plane was gliding in. On the deck one knew differently! As the aircraft came closer and deck one knew differently! As the aircraft came closer and the carrier heaved on into the waves and the plane’s speed did not diminish and the deck did not grow steady— indeed, it pitched up and down five or ten feet per greasy heave—one experienced a neural alarm that no lecture could have prepared him for: This is not an airplane coming toward me, it is a brick with some poor sonofabitch riding it (someone much like my self!), and it is not gliding, it is falling, a thirty-thousand-pound brick, headed not for a stripe on the deck but for me—and with a horrible smash! it hits the skillet, and with a blur of momentum as big as a freight train’s it hurtles toward the far end of the deck— another blinding storm!—another roar as the pilot pushes the throttle up to full military power and another smear of rubber screams out over the skillet—and this is nominal!— quite okay!—for a wire stretched across the deck has grabbed the hook on the end of the plane as it hit the deck tail down, and the smash was the rest of the fifteen-ton brute slamming onto the deck, as it tripped up, so that it is now straining against the wire at full throttle, in case it hadn’t held and the plane had “boltered” off the end of the deck and had to struggle up into the air again. And already the Mickey Mouse helmets are running toward the fiery monster…

This should not work. You can’t write without paragraph breaks and treat punctuation like it’s pepper and sentences as optional. You can’t mix metaphors. You can’t . . .

And yet, there may be no better way to understand from a writer what it feels like on the deck of an aircraft carrier (the skillet!) than to read this passage. And what it sounds like. The “detonations, explosions, flames, combustion, roars, shrieks, whines, blasts, horrible shudders, fracturing impacts.” This is prose that gets you in the gonads.

I would never tell you to write like this. First off, you can’t. Even Wolfe can’t: most of the book is written in conventional narrative syntax, because no reader can take a verbal assault like this for ten pages, let alone 500. And even if you could, this is not the way to communicate most of things you want to say. (“The strategy! It reeked. It stunk to to the wide heavens and the far-flung edges of the corporation, dripping with jargon, falsity, hypocrisy, perfidy even . . . abstracted to a high vacuous ideal, stripped of any connection to what actual people did in actual workplaces with actual human customers in Bangalore and Shenzhen and Iowa City. And yet, as an object, a keepsake, a teddy bear for executives, it filled a need and, from time to time, dragged the managers lurching forward towards the occasional and blessed quarterly profit.”)

Even so, Wolfe connects. He describes. His prose is not at all about him, it is about human beings in a terrible situation, one that hardly any of us will ever get close to, but one we can come to understand in a visceral way from this ragged, penetrating shard of prose. Is there any other way to understand the psyche of a fighter pilot, a test pilot, an astronaut, than reading this?

Your words are tools to describe what the rest of us must understand. Concrete, sensory words can get you closer. This is what I taught my students with this passage (and they truly learned it). Sentences have a sound and rhythm, you can hear it in your mind, your readers can hear it in their minds, and you can use the cadence of sentences, paragraphs, bullets, italic, and the sound of the words to get them to understand. And like Tom Wolfe, you can vary the shape and sound of that prose to communicate emotion, even on a Web page, in an email, or in a blog post.

Thank you for existing, Tom Wolfe, and for sharing your unique talent with us. Thank you for changing what we all think of as the boundaries of nonfiction and journalism. Thanks for waking us up.

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