Story: The author, through interviews with the man himself and many of his colleagues, friends and family members from various stages of his life, chronicles the life of Neil Armstrong, combat pilot, experimental test pilot, Gemini and Apollo astronaut, and someone who had to come back to Earth dealing with universal celebrity as the first human being to walk on the moon.
Review: By his very nature, former astronaut Neil Armstrong is quiet, reclusive and admirably level-headed. We truly need more like him in the world. The flipside of that, however, is that perhaps he’s not the most exciting biographical subject in the world. His aeronautical and astronautical exploits are the stuff of legend, and rightly so, and as much as anyone’s possibly can be, his brilliance in those fields is practically a matter of public record now. But with his legendary reserve and unflappability, anything that’s outside of those areas winds up rendering the book…well…dry.
How much of that is the author and how much is the subject, I honestly can’t say – and it may well be the combination of both – that makes “First Man” a little bit of a plodding read. Which, my gut instinct tells me, simply should not be the case because it’s about the first man to walk on the moon. But heart-wrenching events like the death of Armstrong’s young daughter during his test pilot days, his eventual divorce from his first wife, and close brushes with ill health are coated in technical terminology and surprisingly unemotional quotes from the man himself. Every instinct of which I’m capable knows that I should feel something as these stories are recounted. I’ve got a small child of my own, still an infant really, and the account of Armstrong’s daughter’s death should’ve hit me like a kidney punch. And it didn’t.
There are a few other things that I don’t know whether to take up with the author or the book’s editor. As heavy with military and ex-military personnel as any account of America’s space program in the 1960s is going to be, one of the biggest glitches in the book is its apparent refusal to capitalize any of the U.S. military’s branches. C’mon – you do capitalize Army, Navy and Air Force. They’re proper nouns. This isn’t some picayune obscurity from someone’s non-standard style guide. Granted, that’s a minor thing to focus on, but it just ate away at me for the entire duration of the book.
Journalistically, the book is in good shape for the most part. The author interviewed a wide cross-section of people whose orbits, earthly or otherwise, have crossed Armstrong’s, so the depth of source material he had to work with is impressive. In some cases, highly technical terms are explained in layman’s terms, and in other cases, not quite so much. The author is no Jeffrey Kluger in that respect.
I’m trying very hard not to say that someone, given the chance to write the official biography of the first man on the moon, managed to make a boring book out of it, but…let me put it this way. “Light This Candle”, the posthumous biography of Alan B. Shepard, was a more engrossing read, and it didn’t even have the luxury of its subject still being alive. I’ll give “First Man” points for being fact-filled, and stuffed to the brim with quotes from a person who deliberately chooses to live about as far out of the limelight as anyone could in his completely unique position, but it just seems to come up short on heart. I’m not asking the book to dish dirt; I had just hoped that it would recapture the drama of one of the most important events – possibly the most important event – of the 20th century.
Author: James R. Hansen
Publisher: Simon & Schuster