Uncommon Type is a collection of clever, well-written, thoughtful short stories by Tom Hanks, yet the experience of reading them is unbalanced by Hanks’ fame.
Tom Hanks will be the most ‘famous’ writer to be published this year. Millions know what he looks like (how many people have even seen a photo of David Means?) and, more pertinently, they know Tom Hanks intimately as a number of characters. One of the best stories here, ‘Christmas Eve 1953’, powerfully evokes the memories of a veteran of World War Two (“plenty happened that made no sense, no sense at all”) but instead of admiring Hanks’ remarkable empathy in a honest imagining of such experience the mind drifts off to wonder if it is based on Hanks’ experience of Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps Uncommon Types should have been published anonymously, because these short stories can easily stand on their own merits.
The stories display the comic timing, and emotional range, of Hanks’ acting. There is the When Harry Met Sally comedy of ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ where two friends (a slacker man and an organised, ambitious woman) fall into a relationship:
“Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy SEAL… Something was going on every moment of every day”.
The same characters appear in ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ where a group of friends build a spaceship:
“Announce that you are flying to the moon and everyone assumes that you mean to land on it.”
Hanks’ sentences have the happy knack of drawing you in.
These are stories with a sunny disposition, perhaps of that and because they often contain characters who are immigrants they feel old-fashioned (though in a good way), optimism seems out of step with current US politics. Hanks depicts characters changing their lives, a divorcee slowly finds love with her next-door neighbour and a young actress reinvents herself with a change of name:
“Disappointing your parents is the first thing to do when you come to New York.”
Among the darker stories ‘A Special Weekend’ captures a boy’s innocence with the quiet depth of a Raymond Carver story, but all convey a sense of possibility. Hanks is particularly good at describing moments of happiness, always sensitive to innocent joy.
It is more a quirk than an unifying factor that each story contains a reference to typewriters, sometimes a glancing reference though in several stories they are central to the plot. While this is less restrictive than Georges Perec doing without the letter ‘e’ in A Void it provides, perhaps, a credo that Hanks manages to live up to:
“A typewriter is a tool. In the right hands, one that can change the world.”
Any Cop?: Stories that are a joy to read. They give a sense of the personality behind them: quietly observant, crammed with every type of humour (including punchlines, how rare is that?) and characterised by an openhearted joy in those moments that can, occasionally, be found in life.