Mercury astronaut turned thriller-writer Carpenter (The Steel Albatross, 1990) and his daughter put on the dampeners as they tell his life story thus far.
It’s not their subdued tone, though, that robs this autobiography of its potential vitality. That is accomplished by using the third person, which establishes too great a distance between the reader and Carpenter, pulling the rug out from under the immediacy the story begs for—an immediacy that it gets only for the few hours when Carpenter is in his Aurora 7 orbiting Earth: he then takes control of the story much as he did his capsule when the fuel ran out due to equipment malfunction. Carpenter spent his early years in the company of his grandparents, his mother away for long stretches of time in a sanitarium with tuberculosis, his father having deserted the family. Carpenter did keep in touch with his father through letters, which are reproduced here, allowing readers into the head of the young man. As a military test plot at Patuxent, he became a prime candidate for the Mercury Program. Description of the screening and selection process for that adventure, its endless “psychophysiological nit-picking,” hews closely to Tom Wolfe’s handling of it in The Right Stuff, though these authors retune the characterizations (“John Glenn was more ambitious, more talented, funnier, and more charismatic than the humorless Calvinist of The Right Stuff”). The space flight is the centerpiece, a truly dangerous and punishing mission (“I was trained to avoid any active intellectual comprehension of disaster,” he notes as his spacecraft started to fail him). His work for SeaLab after the Mercury Program gets skimmed over. And why mention that he’s had three divorces without then delving at least a bit into that part of the life?
Still, enough of Carpenter comes off the pages to reveal the elemental audacity we’ve come to associate with the seven Mercury astronauts. (16 pp. b&w photos)