A Fairly Unbiased Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks.

Can there ever be such a thing as an unbiased review?

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A good portion of the people who pick up Uncommon Type will do so out of curiosity to discover whether Tom Hanks, the Hollywood A-lister, can write. You would expect him make a decent fist of it, wouldn’t you? After all, we already know Tom Hanks is a smart and articulate man. He’s a professional communicator, has an understanding of timing and character development and he’s funny. Does all of that add up to being a good writer? I, for one, was rooting for Forrest Gump to come up trumps.

Occasionally, when Tom Hanks is out and about in the real world, he meets a small child who can’t understand how the man he is facing could possibly claim to be Woody from Toy Story. Hanks knows exactly what to do. He asks the child to close his eyes and then, to the amazement of all, he performs the voice and the child knows without any doubt that he has met the real Woody.

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Having read Hanks’ first collection of short stories, I’m left with the impression that he intends to play the same trick on his readers. Even the most commercially successful of authors, Stephen King or Dan Brown or Paula Hawkins, don’t have the advantage Hanks has of having a voice so very familiar to us. If I were to say to you, ‘My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates…’ I’m willing to bet you can hear Tom Hanks’ voice in your head finishing the sentence.

There is no doubt that the actor’s spoken voice shines through, clear as a bell, in his writing and that, absolutely, is a real pleasure. He brings the same affable, jocular manner we’ve all seen on some chat show or other. He sounds like himself – at his ease and, more significantly, in control. Hanks is a natural raconteur, an exemplary story-teller and to read his book is the closest you will come to having the Tom Hanks you know so well from the movies actually take a seat by your fire-side and spin you a yarn.

My problem is this: I think he’s still acting. He’s still performing voices, acting the author, while we, so to speak, read with our eyes shut.

The collection opens with a story called Three Exhausting Weeks in which a man who was previously content to spend his days doing a load or two of laundry and watching a game on TV begins dating an old school friend, a woman who is fit and smart and driven to succeed.

“Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy Seal while working full-time in an Amazon fulfilment center in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season.”

The story charts the increasingly hectic, but mercifully brief, course of their mismatched relationship.

It’s a snappy and entertaining piece of writing and introduces a quirky foursome of friends who appear twice more in later stories. With each reprisal, I liked these characters a little more but even three stories, a trip to the moon and a bowling championship, later, they seemed more like the cast of a sit-com than real people.

Another character who wins himself several appearances in the collection is Hank Fiset. Now, this guy I really like. Hank Fiset is a bit of a crank, a Grumpy Old Man but also an old school, small town, newspaper man who crafts his column so that it can be read in exactly the time it takes to boil an egg. He accompanies his wife on a trip to New York where he finds the Caesar salad too tart, the parking inconvenient and the art for Art’s sake only.

“I saw a movie that was nothing more than time passing – really, a lot of clocks ticking and people looking at their watches. I gave it ten minutes.”

He mourns the demise of print newspapers and recalls a colleague, a re-write man at the old associated press, whose type-writer was a Continental.

“The man made quite a racket doing his job a few hundred times a shift– the chonk-chonkka of his typing with the ba-ding of the bell, the krank of the carriage return, the shripp of the copy ripped from the machine.”

This brings me to the author’s most charming device, the hook on which the collection hangs. In each story there is an individual type-writer. Some are older than others but all can lay claim to the term vintage. In some stories the type-writer plays a starring role, in others it’s an extra hanging about in the background but it’s always there somewhere. The type-writer made me smile, every time.

Close enough to the centre page of this book, and at its very heart, you will find a real gem, a story called These Are the Meditations of My Heart. It’s about a girl who can’t resist buying an old type-writer that’s going cheap at a yard sale.

She brings the type-writer to a repair shop where an old fellow with a, probably, Polish accent teaches her a thing or two about type and type-writers and why we are so attracted to them.

“Because they were built to last forever.”

Can’t you just hear Hanks doing that probably-Polish accent?

“You are seeking permanence,” he says.

It was in this story that I thought we might, just might mind you, be hearing the voice of the real Tom Hanks rather than another of his myriad characters.

“I’m not one who types between sips from a tumbler of booze and drags from a pack of smokes. I just want to set down what few truths I’ve come to know.”

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Hanks failed to convince me that he is a writer. He doesn’t display the compulsion to bare his own soul . Sure, Hanks writes and he writes well. He writes convincing scenes of American lives, poignant characters who recall a better past or believe in a better future. But, he doesn’t say anything in these stories that he wouldn’t have said better in a movie. He doesn’t give himself away. He’s still playing Woody, doing a voice, acting.

It may be that Hanks is too good an actor, too smart, too practised at guarding his privacy, to be a writer. It may be that I was looking for something he was never going to give.

When you see Hanks’ name on a movie poster you know you are in safe hands. Tom Hanks is never less than entertaining. Equally, his stories are thoughtful and congenial. Some are moving, others hilarious but they are not provocative and they are not personal. His stories are safe, which is a pity really, because Tom Hanks can write.

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