Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Jul 2018

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Reviewers have been generally kind if somewhat condescending about Tom Hanks’ first collection of short stories, Uncommon Type. Some have expressed surprise that an actor can also write, seeming to view this rather as Dr Johnson did a woman preaching – “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”. There has also been a little hyperbole: one said that reading Hanks’ stories is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actor of her generation. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.

Firstly, one must mention length. Hanks is nothing if not generous. This book is over 400 pages long. In this first collection of short stories Hanks has given us more than many writers do after a lifetime of short story writing. They are varied, rich in character and incident, move back and forth in time (and in two cases space too), warm, funny, humane, nostalgic and generous in spirit. In fact, if one had to try and imagine what kind of short stories Tom Hanks might write – based solely on the persona one gets some impression of on-screen and in interviews – then these would pretty much be what you would come up with. The prose is workmanlike and serviceable (if not distinguished) and there is evident pleasure in writing on almost every page.

I say almost every page because I think a kinder or stricter editor might have convinced Tom that the book is about a hundred pages too long. There seems – to my taste, anyway – some unmistakeable filler in here. There are four slightly too whimsical ‘columns’ by a soon-to-retire journalist on a local paper; there is an over-long story about bowling (others may enjoy it but as a bowling illiterate I couldn’t follow it); and there is a fifty-page screenplay that seems something of an orphan. Less would have been more.

But I don’t see how anyone could read the best of what’s in here without enjoyment. And that, first and foremost, seems to be the prime motivation of these stories. Tom wrote them because he enjoys writing. He enjoys tinkering with his collection of vintage typewriters (there is a tenuous thread running through all of the stories in that typewriters feature in some manner in each). They were written to be enjoyed. Dare one call them – without disparagement, I mean – ‘easy reading’?

What I mean by this is that they are light, accomplished and enjoyable without being difficult, tricksy or challenging. They have a quite distinctive voice (it is almost impossible not to read them in a Tom Hanks voice), but they are not doing much – nor are they intended – to expand or innovate the short story form. Perhaps most importantly, because I think this on balance is in their favour, they are very much their own thing and reveal no obvious indebtedness to the great American short story writers –to Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Grace Paley, Carver, Updike, Bashevis Singer, Capote, Eudora Welty, Willa Cather…

The best of them really are very good indeed and merit rereading. ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ (a torrid but ultimately failed sexual adventure), ‘A Junket in the City of Light’ (a bit-part actor gets to see Paris but without an expense account), ‘A Month on Greene Street’ (a divorcee finds her new neighbour to be an ex-addict astronomer) and especially ‘These Are the Meditations of My Heart’ (a lonely young woman who has recently left her boyfriend buys a vintage typewriter) were all hugely enjoyable and I would happily read them all again.

Reviewing the book late last year the US public broadcasting website NPR concluded an otherwise kind review a little too harshly: “Is this great literature? No – it’s too generic and mawkish. But Uncommon Type offers heartfelt charm along with nostalgia for sweeter, simpler times – even if they never really were quite so sweet or simple.”

I certainly didn’t find the stories generic or mawkish. Earlier I called them ‘easy reading’ and this seems to me more accurate. If only the best ten stories occupied this book, then it would be a cause for celebration. As it is, I found my attention flagging a little towards the end because there really is too much here and taken all together the stories somehow lack a sense of occasion. What I mean by that is the feeling of anticipation you experience when you know you are reading a story that is not just by a great writer but is also a remarkable addition to the short story form. You feel as if the short story form as well as one’s ability to read it are both being expanded.

I thoroughly enjoyed the best of what Hanks’ Uncommon Type has to offer. They confirm on page after page that he is exactly the intelligent, generous-spirited and modest man you always imagined (and hoped) he would be. But I will admit that they also sent me back to an old Penguin collection of Hemingway’s short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro & Other Stories – to remind myself of what an extraordinary tightrope act a great short story can be.


Alun Severn

July 2018