Tom Hanks’s short story collection is like a box of chocolates
Uncommon Type Review: While twee at times, the collection shows Hanks is more than an actor
Tom Hanks approaches his collection in an interesting way, using typewriters as a hook to connect each story. Photograph: Vittorio Zunino/Getty Images
Uncommon Type: Some Stories
Yes, that Tom Hanks. The guy from Turner & Hooch. But enough about that, let’s talk about the stories.
This collection will probably make cynics roll their eyes but it’s not unreasonable that someone who has worked for decades telling stories through one medium should also be interested in telling them through another. The late, great Carrie Fisher, for example was an iconic actress who wrote some marvellous books. Steve Martin hasn’t let himself down, nor has Ethan Hawke. On the other hand, there’s James Franco and Jesse Eisenberg, about whom the least said the better. And, although I loved him as an actor, the title of Gene Wilder’s novel, My French Whore – yours for £0.01 on Amazon – does not make it sound particularly promising.
Hanks, however, approaches his collection in an interesting way, using one of his own obsessions – typewriters – as a hook to connect each story. Waiting for the moment to appear each time, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, is one of the small but enjoyable treats of Uncommon Type.
- In praise of Jonathan Swift: A prolific writer and moralist with ferocious wit
- The Messenger: a steaming pile of meology journalism
- Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian review: Creator of JFK’s Camelot
- Jimmy Webb’s remarkable memoir has its cake and eats it
- The Book Quiz: ‘Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man’
The book starts with Three Exhausting Weeks, an engaging account of a man’s 21-day relationship with a woman who basically runs him ragged, and from the start Hanks’ writing is solid and inventive. “Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy SEAL,” he writes, “while working full-time in an Amazon fulfilment centre in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season.”
The tone is somewhat familiar, however, and it was only on a second reading of the story that I thought it would not feel out of place in something like Richard Ford’s Rock Springs or Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? It has that American male-centric feeling to it, an ordinary Joe trying to get on with his life while dealing with the demands that are endlessly made on his time. It works well.
United States of Decency
Hanks is at his most comfortable - and I’m not sure if this a compliment or a criticism - when he’s creating the type of solid American landscape that’s a feature of wholesome, patriotic films like Apollo 13 or Sully. Families are indestructible units, collectively fascinated by things like the railroads and the moon landing, while war, when it comes, is something that leaves wives pining for loving husbands and sons longing for heroic fathers.
I’m not sure if this kind of world ever existed outside of Hollywood but then Westeros in Game of Thrones doesn’t exist either, as far as I know, and George RR Martin has managed to create something out of it that nerds all over the world adore. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of those nerds.)
Whether he really believes in this United States of Decency or is simply too Establishment to write more contemporary stories that reflect the lives of those who suffer under racism, intolerance and the more draconian elements of a Trumpian society is open to debate.
In truth, however, it’s difficult to imagine Tom Hanks writing something that might see him denounced by the Red States for a lack of loyalty to their Great Leader; these stories just want to be loved.
Curiously, one of the misjudged efforts relates closely to the author’s own life. A Junket in the City of Light reflects the experiences of a little-known actor thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight by becoming the co-star of a Julia Roberts-type in the latest instalment of a movie franchise. The exhaustion of going from city to city and being asked the same tedious questions over and over by unimaginative journalists is well depicted but I’m not sure it says anything that we don’t know, although it contains a terrific observation about the best European hotels being those with a Nazi past. (He’s right about that.) Yes, those kinds of things are hard work but, you know, it’s not like working down a coal mine. Or in the White House.
In the most memorable moments, such as These are the Meditations of my Heart, where a woman buys a faulty typewriter and is then given a lesson in their history and mechanics from a repair man, Hanks allows his passion to shine through. It makes for some strong writing, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed by his tendency towards sentimentality. A novice school teacher would cross out the unbearably twee title of A Special Weekend while the depiction of the perfect American family in Christmas Eve 1953 is so saccharine that those prone to high blood sugar are advised to have extra vials of insulin on hand just in case they slip into a diabetic coma.
So, mixed results, really and, like a box of chocolates, you know never what you’re gonna get. (Sorry.) But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print.
It’s too long, though. A short story collection should never break the 250-page mark and, at over 400, Uncommon Type would be a lengthy novel. Cutting the stories down to eight or nine of the best might have allowed the author’s considerable skills to be on display while leaving the lesser work on the cutting-room floor.
John Boyne’s most recent novel is ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ (Doubleday)