Uncommon Type review: Tom Hanks’ short stories demand to be savoured at leisure
When celebrities have a go at writing, most prefer to stick to the safe genre of memoirs. Fiction is attempted in rare cases. Rarer still is when such attempts are successful and the fruit of that labour actually worth your time.
Actor-filmmaker Tom Hanks’ debut collection of short stories belongs, without any doubt, to that singular category. In the 17 stories that make Uncommon Type, the two-time Oscar-winning actor reveals himself to be a skilled storyteller.
There is a great deal of variety in terms of themes and while the prose may not be exceptional, Hanks’ measured storytelling makes the collection an addictive read. There is no descriptive excess and not a word is wasted.
The collection begins with Three Exhausting Weeks, where the laid-back narrator and his superactive friend from the multicultural, moon-trotting bunch of Hanks’ 2014 short story, Alan Bean Plus Four, try to turn their friendship into a relationship.
In Christmas Eve 1953, a former soldier takes stock of his physical and emotional scars earned during the Second World War, while in A Junket in the City of Light, a small-time model-actor finds himself overwhelmed by a crazy-hectic press tour across Europe after landing a meaty part opposite a big star. A bored billionaire goes time travelling in The Past is Important to Us. And in Stay With Us, written like a screenplay, a billionaire hotelier and his overworked assistant find something invaluable in a non-descript roadside motel.
The stories trapeze through time (1940s, 1950s, 1970s, 2000s, 2027) and are set in America, and may require some degree of familiarity with the geography and popular culture of the country. But the struggles they describe are universal.
Hanks flits in and out of perspectives, and the reader transitions from feeling the wonder of a 10-year-old flying in a four-seater plane for the first time, to the boredom of a billionaire who looks for fresh distractions each day, the lingering heartache of a woman trying to move on after a breakup, to experiencing the anxieties of a divorced, single mother settling in a new neighbourhood as effortlessly as turning a kaleidoscope.
Typewriters, the obsolete writing machines of the past, and Hanks’ well-known obsession, make a comeback in Uncommon Type, threading the varied narratives together. Their “bang bang clack-clack-clack puckapuckapuckapucka” provides a steady background score as a different model makes a cameo in each story
Among some stories that stand out are Welcome to Mars (a father and son are each other’s support system in a dysfunctional family but there exist some secrets ) and Go See Costas (a Bulgarian escapes the civil war in his country to get to New York and start over with no money and no English.) Who’s Who (about the trials and tribulations of Sue Gliebe who is “losing her battle with tears” trying to get a Broadway break) is reminiscent of O Henry’s stories set in the Big Apple.
In these all-American tales, Hanks’ the Democrat is careful to reflect the country’s racial diversity. In Three Exhausting Weeks, the narrator explains his gift to his friend MDash (short for Mohammed Dayax-Abdo) who has just become a naturalised American citizen:
“I bought a forty-eight-star American flag, from the 1940s. The flag would remind MDash that his adoptive nation is never finished building itself— that good citizens have a place somewhere in her fruited plain just as more stars can fit in the blue field above those red and white stripes.”
This is a heartening and relevant reminder at a time when the sight of angry crowds shouting “Blood and soil” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the subsequent violence that followed is still fresh in public memory.
If you enjoy a story well told and/or are a Tom Hanks fan or have a peculiar obsession for typewriters, Uncommon Type is right up your alley. That said, this collection is not a pacy, airport read to be glugged bottoms up. More like fine wine, these stories demand to be savoured at leisure.
The author tweets @DoNotRamble