The Right Stuff of the Vanities

By Monte Dutton

Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, 3:38 p.m.

For many years, I thought The Right Stuff was the best non-fiction book I ever read. Now I consider it neck and neck with William Prochnau’s Once Upon a Distant War.

When I wrote a novel about a pot-smoking songwriter fleeing the feds, I used The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for reference. I’ve never dropped acid. I’ve been to Oregon. Riley Mansfield ate mushrooms there. I thought reading was a better way to do research than taking hallucinogens.

I’ve gotten old.

When Tom Wolfe died, I lost a go-to guy. John Steinbeck was another, but he was gone before I went. I miss Elmore Leonard, Dick Francis, Wallace Stegner, Larry Brown and Graham Greene, too. I am a writer, which means it’s hard to like others. It makes me jealous that they’re so great and I’m not.

I liked The Right Stuff movie twice as much because I read the book first. I liked The Bonfire of the Vanities half as much because I read it, Wolfe’s first novel, before I saw that putrescent movie.

Wolfe wasn’t a dispassionate observer. He was a passionate observer. He didn’t party with Ken Kesey or guzzle shine with Junior Johnson. He watched the world around him and then ripped it to shreds.

Has ever there been a great writer who was also so flamboyant?

A deep regret of mine is that I never met Pat Conroy. I should have. I didn’t care enough to make it happen. I’ve never had much interested in autographs. Harry Gant was the same way, even though he cheerfully signed them.

“Beats all I ever seen,” the stock car racing yeoman told me. “I just don’t get it. I loved Elvis, but I never cared nothing for how he signed his name.”

I did meet Wolfe. He and I had a brief chat. It was about Stegner, who helped teach Wolfe how to write and me how to understand my own father. Stegner was an actual teacher of Wolfe’s. I just read his novels.

Wolfe had a marvelous sense of the absurd. Perhaps a fat sportswriter in a NASCAR press box asking him about a Western literary figure piqued Wolfe’s taste for the absurd, but he stopped and engaged me on the subject of Stegner’s differences with Kesey.

It was marvelous. It wasn’t just marvelous. He actually agreed with what I had to say about Kesey, Stegner, the Beat Generation and Larry McMurtry. He seemed to enjoy talking with me, and, if he didn’t, I’m glad he hid it so well.

About all I learned from the obituary was that Wolfe wrote one final novel I haven’t read.

I’ll be on it soon.

(Steven Novak cover)

If you become a patron of mine, you’re supporting writing like this as well as my mostly NASCAR blogs at If you’ve got a few bucks a month to spare, click here.

Another way I cobble out a living is with my books, a wide variety of which are available for sale here.

The new novel, my eighth, is called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Lightning in a Bottle is now available in an audio version, narrated by Jay Harper.


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