Tom Hanks’s first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, concerns the process implied by said title, told over half a century, and split into sections that broadly mirror the stages of movie development: Backstory, Source Material, Development Hell, Casting and so on. We meet a core cast of characters, separated by hundreds of miles and several decades, who eventually cohere into a single narrative as the proposed film becomes a reality. As a statement on the labyrinthine choices and efforts that go into every movie, it’s a good parable, as we discover the origins not just of the film’s source material but the career paths of its director, Bill; producer Allicia; actor Maria; and a half dozen other crew, their lives curving in knotty loops until they find themselves on set, or off camera, for the masterpiece in question.
The film itself is a comic book adaptation, and the book treads a fine line on the debate over whether this is a welcome situation. The pomposity of the book’s title invites you to take it as an ironic statement, but direct judgment is spared. We get a long and loving evocation of Golden Age comic books, read in 1950s drugstores with a bottle of Coke in hand (very much the sort of thing we presume Hanks loves writing about) but markedly less comment on the current ubiquity of superhero cinema in the present day (which a careful reader might deduce he does not). As an evocation of the old-timey comics biz, it boasts neither the literary grandeur of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, nor the gonzo provocation of Alan Moore’s What We Can Know about Thunderman, but it’s cannily realised, and goes further than both by treating us to interstitial pages from its own fictional works, including 1950s war comics, 1970s countercultural comix and material from the present day, all drawn with versatile aplomb by veteran comic artist R Sikoryak.
Though it might be slightly overlong and more enthralled by its own pet subjects than I, his depth of description sucks you into a fully realised world
Hanks’s prose is occasionally mannered but mostly fluent and direct, with enough “aw shucks” patter to fill a box of chocolates. His writing, like his acting career, abounds with the homespun decency of ordinary folk and an overall obsession with the details of Americana. And I do mean details. There is everywhere a fascination with the minutiae of period artefacts; the homewares, appliances and machinery of time and place are given assiduous prominence for most of the book’s first few sections. There are also footnotes, which add a scholarly flair to such particulars, often citing a further, future development in the thing he’s described, a la “*Air conditioning was still years away for the Anderson home – for the world. Ernie eventually installed a rooftop swamp cooler to blast a column of refrigerated air straight down into the central hallways, but that didn’t happen until 1954″. Later, they focus mainly on explaining film industry jargon, although we are also told of a company trying to compete against Amazon as a parcel distributor, to which our all-seeing footnote God interjects “*Good luck with that”. The exact utility or provenance of these footnotes is sometimes difficult to discern, but even if slightly jarring here and there, they combine to create a pleasingly confident sense of the author’s voice.
So, about that voice. It is not Hanks’s fault, but you would need the resolve of a Spartan to read this book without his trademark twang in your head. Any conscious effort to avoid it is entirely in vain. It is categorically unfair to hold this against him, but it is occasionally a bar to establishing the authorial distance necessary to read his words “clean”, not least when so many of the hobby horses that fill these pages – 1950s America, men at war, typewriters, whack-a-doodle Hollywood – are so perfectly calibrated to evoke his Decent Movie Dad persona. For much of the book’s length, I heard the text as recklessly verbose passages of voiceover from a Tom Hanks film but, though it might be slightly overlong and more enthralled by its own pet subjects than I, his depth of description sucks you into a fully realised world, populated by compelling characters and gently adroit satire. Hanks parlayed an early career playing affable goofs into one playing extremely competent men doing thankless jobs, often men with a surface patina of grumpiness that doesn’t quite disguise the heart of gold beneath; the sort of honourable protagonist you can’t help but like, no matter how manipulatively he is deployed. This book was very much written by, about, and like one of these characters. In the end, it’s all the better for it.