Two times Academy award winner and everyone’s favourite actor Tom Hanks is not new to writing. He worked as a screenwriter on the miniseries Band of Brothers and his writings have appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker over the years. But as a reader who grew up watching his films and encountered his writing for the first time in the debut collection, Uncommon Type, I was as disappointed as Hanks is obsessed with typewriters.
The book contains seventeen short stories. Each of them gets the mention of a typewriter from Hanks’s collection, its image appearing on the left hand side page before the beginning of every story. The stories carry the personalities of their typewriters, as do the characters – who appear mildly amusing, a bit flawed, and occasionally frustrating. If they were just sitting in a café or walking down the street, you would hardly be intrigued.
We’ve met them before
It’s hard to shake off the feeling that one or the other of the characters in every story is reminiscent of someone Hanks has portrayed during his thriving cinematic career. Certain scenes will also take you back to specific films. For instance, the short story “Christmas Eve 1953” constantly reminded me of Saving Private Ryan. Even the migrant in his story “Go See Costas” is not very different from Hanks’s character in The Terminal.
There are recurring characters in different stories, which makes you suspect that these particular stories are chapters from an unfinished novel. These stories with recurring characters do a fine job on their own, but once you connect the dots, the common factors do not add up to anything substantial, for there is no plot linking them, only the fact that these four people know each other and do things like going to the Antarctica or taking a rocket (constructed in the backyard) to the moon.
Sometimes the narration feels like listening to a grandpa in Florida telling stories of a semi-interesting life. Spoiler alert: more often than not, the stories are boring, and when they aren’t boring, they sound like someone describing a sex scene in 1950 – for instance, “[we] touched each other in our wonderful places”. Yeah.
Nice guys don’t necessarily write great stories
Hanks mentions a gay WW2 veteran, a newly accepted citizen of the United States of America, and a mildly independent divorcee as if graciousness is being bestowed humbly upon the reader while the writer flaunts his progressivism. He can flex his creative muscles to demonstrate his wit at the expense of botching up the character of a career-driven woman – while simultaneously retaining his personal reputation of the nicest guy in Hollywood.
The problem is that these stories read like Hollywood scripts where characters like a Sub-Saharan migrant, a career-driven woman, constantly fighting sisters (because how can there be any other kind) and an independent, divorced woman are all treated the same way as the token gay best friend or the mean high-school cheerleader as seen in numerous films.
It is said in writing classes: Write what you know or write your truth. Hanks seems to have followed the same path in his writing. As far the texture of the prose goes, once again it feels like a monologue from one of Hanks’s films. Use of words like “hoopy-boofy”, phrases like the moon’s “ancient silvery embrace” and “SO, WHAT’S NOO in Noo Yawk?” made me cringe and wonder: what were the editors thinking when they reached this particular point in the manuscript? Had they run out of pens and pencils or had the delete button on the keyboard stopped working?
It is said that every story in the world has already been told – so it is not what you say, it is how you say it. Hanks says it as humorously as possible. The trouble is that in spite of the witty banter, the stories are far too predictable. Hanks attempts to write about the “human condition” but it makes you wonder whether the only human being he truly knows is a middle-aged white American.
“‘Tell him the proverb you told me,’ Steve said.
‘Something else the village shaman taught you?’ I wondered.
‘Actually, the village English teacher,’ MDash said. ‘To circle the globe, a ship needs only a sail, a wheel, a compass, and a clock.’
‘Wise words in a landlocked nation,’ I said. MDash grew up in the sub-Sahara.
‘Anna is the compass,’ MDash explained. ‘You are the clock, but you keeping time with her means you’ve become unwound. Your hands are right only twice a day. We’ll never know our longitude.’
‘Are you sure Anna isn’t the sail?’ I said. ‘Why can’t I be the wheel and Steve be the compass? I don’t follow this analogy.’
‘Let me put this into a language you can understand,’ Steve said. ‘We are like a TV show with diversity casting. African guy, him. Asian guy, me. Mongrel Caucasoid, you. Strong determined woman, Anna, who would never let a man define her. You and her pairing off is like a story line when the network is trying to keep us on the air.’
I looked at MDash. ‘Are you getting this pop culture metaphor?’
‘The gist of it. I have cable.’”— From “Three Exhausting Weeks”
A few exceptions, thankfully
I do not dislike Tom Hanks or his book. In fact, I kept hoping that the next story would be the one where he had taken risks instead of telling the same old tale of the nice guy feeling okay and doing something ordinary while struggling to come to terms with the fast paced world of technology, and never understanding the mystery that a woman is. There are signs of this in one of the most interesting stories in the collection, “Alan Bean Plus Four”, where four friends built a rocket ship and take a trip around the moon. Alas, it ends (surprise, surprise) with an anticlimax – a very safe and sound return to earth. Hanks knows how to keep up with the millennials though. After all, the anticlimax has him saying that the reentry into Earth was quite okay and un-adventurous (surprise multiplied by two) but the trip will make for some “bitchin’ posts on Instagram.” Awwww.
By the time I reached the eleventh story, “These are the Meditations of My Heart”, I had more or less given up on the book. But Hanks shines in this story about a young woman stumbling across a typewriter at a church sale and taking it to a repair shop. Although I could not change my already made-up mind after reading ten stories, this one stood out. Unlike the other stories, which had clever observations but lacked heart, this short story romanticised the typewriter and could have only be written by someone who harbours bottomless love for this machine in their heart. If you want to read a homage to typewriters, this is the one.
When asked why she wanted to buy the Royal Safari typewriter, the young woman responds:
“‘I have loopy penmanship, like a little girl, so anything I write looks like a motivational poster in a health clinic. 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’…
‘I want my-yet-to-be-conceived children to someday read the meditations of my heart. I will have personally stamped them into the fibers of page upon page, real stream-of-consciousness stuff that I will keep in a shoe box until my kids are old enough to both read and ponder the human condition!’
I am sorry! I’m yelling!
‘Ah,’ he said.
‘Why am I yelling?’
The old man blinked at the young lady. ‘You are seeking permanence.’— From “These are the Meditations of My Heart”
But it actually took the fifteenth story, “Go See Costas” for Hanks to finally find a foothold and write about an illegal migrant finding his way to America with the now famous line “Go back to your country” thrown into the mix. Hanks further weaves the story of how the Bulgarian protagonist – who had been on the run for years in Greece after leaving his own war-torn country – did not have a country to go back to.
Let me give credit where credit is due. Hanks knows how to build a scene and take it to a tipping point of suspense. Momentarily, the stories even feel like yet-to-be-fleshed-out screenplays. His filmmaking experience is reflected in the scenes written in this story and in “Christmas Eve 1953”, which is about soldiers in World War II.
As genuinely moving some of these stories are, the collection overall makes me feel that while life might be a box of chocolates with some element of surprise, sadly, this book is mostly predictable vanilla ice-cream. It ma be a nice book written by a decent and famous guy, but it made me wonder whether it would have been published if written by a no-namer nice guy from Brooklyn. It would probably have been sitting in a dusty box of rejected manuscripts – much like typewriters that don’t have rich owners.
Uncommon Type, Tom Hanks, Penguin.
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