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The Wrong Stuff (#1049)

Topics/tags: Writing

Wolfe is a stunt pilot of the sentence. -R.S.

Today in The Craft of Creative Nonfiction, we discussed profiles. One of the pieces we read was Tom Wolfe’s profile on Chuck Yeager, taken from The Right Stuff. I’m glad to have read and discussed the work [1]. But Prof. Savarese chose an interesting source for the piece, what seems to be manual of writing instruction. I figured it out midway through the first page when I saw a footnote mark [2]. Now, Wolfe doesn’t make much use of footnotes in his work; in fact, this footnote was for a comment from the editors (annotators) of the manual. It was helpful, I think; at least it guided us to the variety of voices that Wolfe uses in the masterful opening.

But what’s not all that makes the opening paragraph so amazing. What makes it amazing is that the sentences are literally [3] falling apart, foreshadowing what happens to planes when you get close to Mach 1. However, the annotators don’t tell us that. In fact, much of what they tell us is either obvious or lacking. Consider this sentence: Yeager grew up in Hamlin, West Virginia, a town on the Mud River not far from Nitro, Hurricane, Whirlwind, Salt Rock, Mud, Sod, Crum, Leet [5], Dollie, Ruth, and Alum Creek. Now, you know and I know that Wolfe was doing a lot with that list, playing with the sound and order of the list of the names, getting us to understand the area, the weather, the work people do, and more. But here’s what the this is what the footnote says.

The list of towns we’ve never heard of indicates just how far back in the hollows Yeager lived.

Really? That’s all you [6] want your students to take out of that?

Here’s a rule of three sentence that comes soon thereafter. To my mind, it does not show off Wolfe’s skills [7]: His brother was a gas driller (drilling for natural gas in the coalfields), his older brother was a gas driller, and he would have been a gas driller had he not enlisted in the Army Air Force at the age of eighteen.

The first two repetitions of gas driller set up the expectation that Yeager too will become a gas driller, but then Wolfe catches us by surprise using the third repetition to say that he enlisted in the army air force instead. The whole play on words is fun to read and engages the reader.

I see that I wrote Are you serious? next to that footnote. They consider that a play on words? They thought it was surprising? They thought it was fun to read? I feel like we’re looking at different sentences. And then there’s the structure of the sentence. The he is ambiguous; it could refer to Yeager or Wolfe. army air force should be capitalized. And all they’re really done in the first sentence of the footnote is to repeat what Wolfe said.

I tried to ignore the footnotes. Really, I did. But my brain is wired to read footnotes. So I got to see a variety of wonderful pairings.

But to pilots this prehistoric throwback of an airfield became shrimp heaven! the rat-shack plains of Olympus.

Linking the rat-shack plains to Mount Olympus shows us its exalted status among the hot young test pilots.

Really? You needed to tell us that? And what does the its refer to? [R]at-shack plains are plural.

A long sentence from Wolfe [8]: The idea in testing the X-1 was to nurse it carefully into the transonic zone, up to seven-tenths, eight-tenths, nine-tenths the speed of sound (.7 Mach, .8 Mach, .9 Mach) before attempting the speed of sound itself, Mach 1, even though Bell and the Army already knew the X-1 had the rocket power to go to Mach 1 and beyond, if there was any beyond. You know what the comment will be, right? Yes, you are correct.

The italics are for emphasis.

Somewhere along here, I was asking myself whether Prof. Savarese chose this version to punish us. Rather than focusing on Wolfe’s creativity, we have to push back against banality. Or at least those of us among that loyal fraternity of footnote fiends must face this farce. Nonetheless, we soldier on.

In doing so, we encounter what must be dozen or more footnotes that comment on the way the Wolfe references fossils or something similar. Do we need to see that much repetition? I’m pretty sure even the most dense of students would know what to look for after the third, or fourth, or fifth such mention.

Then there are the missing comments. If you’re going to talk about style, you should focus on some surprisingly strong section, or puzzling points, or just the wonder of Wolfe’s writing.

Here’s an example: At night it would drop to near freezing, and in December it would start raining, and the dry lakes would fill up with a few inches of water, and some sort of putrid prehistoric shrimps would work their way from out of the ooze, and sea gulls would come flying in a hundred miles or more from the ocean, over the mountains, to gobble up those squirming little throwbacks.

Don’t you love the way that sentence builds and builds and builds? The way Wolfe plays with the ands? How he explains the distance from the ocean as both being far (a hundred miles or more) and near (close enough for a sea gull to fly)? The carefully chosen adjectives and nouns (putrid, throwbacks). We do get one of the endless footnotes about prehistoric a sentence or two later, but nothing about the sentences that seem so Wolfian.

A shorter one, revealing a different deficiency: It was Pygmalion in reverse. Don’t you need to explain Pygmalion to the students reading and explain the power of pulling that in? students reading? Do they learn anything here? No.

(In this moment when the Halusian Gulp is opening?) As far as I can tell, Halusian Gulp is invented. Is he playing with the sound hallucination? Is he using a flyboy term? Nothing tells us.

A longer bit, which I’m block-quoting [9].

On the ground the engineers could no longer see Yeager. They could only hear … that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl.

Had a mild buffet there … jes the usual instability …

Jes the usual instability?

Then the X-1 reached the speed of .96 Mach, and that incredible caint-hardlyin’ aw-shuckin’ drawl said:

Say, Ridley … make a note here, will ya? (if you ain’t got nothin’ better to do) "… elevator effectiveness _re_gained."

Just as Yeager had predicted, as the X-1 approached Mach 1, the stability improved. Yeager had his eyes pinned on the machometer. The needle reached .96, fluctuated, and went off the scale.

And on the ground they heard … that voice:

Say, Ridley … make another note, will ya? (if you ain’t bored yet) … there’s somethin’ wrong with this ol’ machometer … (faint chuckle) …it’s gone kinda screwy on me…

Do we hear anything about how this structure replicates that opening of the piece? Nope. Do we consider that incredible caint-hardlyin’ aw-shuckin’ description? Well, most readers do. But the annotators don’t mention it. The four or more voices? Nope. They just mention two [10].

The point of view shifts back and forth between Yeager and the ground engineers. Since they can no longer see Yeager, Wolfe gives us their exchange. He begins with Yeager’s voice.

I don’t think I can go on any further. As I said, reading this version made me scream. I wonder if I’m alone in feeling that way. And I wonder if Prof. S. did that intentionally.

At least there was a lot more for us to talk about.

I could do a whole course on this piece. - R.S.

Postscript: I’m pretty sure the Wolfe piece first appeared in Esquire as Big Daddy Of the Skies. I wonder why we don’t use that version. I wonder why the book doesn’t.

[1] Or perhaps to have read it again. I have a vague recollection of having read it when it first came out.

[2] I didn’t think Wolfe traditionally made much use of footnotes.

[3] I think you mean figuratively.

[4] No, I mean literally. The sentences break apart and fall back together, with fragments manipulated and joined in multiple ways.

[5] The town has since become famous as the source of a language used by certain categories of interweb denizens.

[6] Just in case it’s not clear, the you is intended for the footnoters, not Prof. S.

[7] I would argue that Wolfe is intentionally pulling back in his style here, working toward something closer to the old journalism.

[8] Not that long sentences are a surprise.

[9] I realize that I’ve previously used the block quotes for footnotes. In this case, it seems better to use it for the eight or so paragraphettes from Wolfe’s piece.

[10] Yeah, I’m switching back to block quotes for footnotes.

Version 1.0 of 2020-04-14.