Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

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Reviewed by Alice Farrant

“We can get the Times to write something. Or that nut from the Observer.”
“Wait, what… what nut from the Observer?”
“Frank something? The one who’s so in love with his typewriter. This is just the sort of thing that would outrage him!”   

You’ve Got Mail [1998]

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

It is no secret that Tom Hanks loves typewriters, not just because Uncommon Type, a debut collection of short stories from this adroit actor, is a love letter to the machine. While I don’t want to focus on Hanks’ film career to review this collection, 1998’s You’ve Got Mail was never far from my mind as I read through this variety of tales. In You’ve Got Mail Hanks’ Joe Fox pushes forth into the future where Greg Kinnear’s Frank Navasky romanticises the past. For me, Hanks, once the future, is now Frank – in love with his typewriter, wryly critical of the now.

Uncommon Type is a satisfying mix of past and present, with a variety of gender and cultural protagonists I wasn’t expecting from the author. One moment you are sitting with a war veteran father in the 1950s as he spends Christmas Eve with his family. The next, you are in a future that allows you to temporarily time travel back to the past. Or flying a backyard rocketship to the moon with your friends MDash, Steve Wong and Anna.

He would bang out his version of my copy–leaner, crisper, better, dang it–then flip up the typewriter on hinges, and on the cleared space go at his own stuff with a blue pencil.

You get the sense that Hanks is a man who loves things that are made to last, preferring the adventures of the mind to those of the body. Perhaps this is my own projection, but it reminded me of Hugh Laurie’s 1996 Desert Island Discs appearance. During the interview, Laurie states he is able to travel anywhere in his head: ‘I was and still am, a great fantasist’. In Uncommon Type, many protagonists are swept along by the actions or events of others, rather than they themselves moving the story forward. I enjoyed this, the fact that the characters were internal, as it allowed me to see myself in them.

The production of this collection is wonderful, it’s a pleasure to hold the book your hands and you wonder if Hanks, as with his typewriters and stories, wanted to create a well-made book that would last. The short stories experiment with form, with newsletter articles or screenplays sat alongside the familiar format. The writing, while not challenging, shows the author’s understanding of what makes a person tick. It’s clear that Hanks’ film experience has made him the master of telling a good story. Each came alive in the telling and I could hear Hanks narrating as I read. They read as though they could be performed, leaving enough room for the imagination to do the legwork. While at times the language of the modern characters seems outdated for their setting, I rarely got the feeling Hanks did not understand his subjects.

Dinnertime with the family Beuell was a show. Davey was in and out of his chair – the kid never sat through a meal. Connie squirmed in her mother’s lap, content with a spoon she worked around in her mouth or banged on the table. Del cut food for the kids, wiped up spills, placed bits of mashed-up potato into Connie’s mouth, and, occasionally, had a bite herself. Virgil ate slowly, never repeating a bite of any one food, but working his fork around his plate in a circle as he listened to the theatre that was his family.

My favourite of the collection was ‘Christmas Eve 1953’, the story of a father at home with his loving wife and children on Christmas Eve, 1953. He spends the evening sitting in his chair, enjoying a drink, as his children prepare for Santa’s arrival. Each of his family head to bed, so he rings his old Army buddy for their annual catch up. As they reminisce the father is pulled back to the war, one he never really forgets, where he lost his leg and got out in 1944 while his friends had to fight on. Happiness and guilt intertwine through this tale, cosiness singed with the haunting of the past.

I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.

To me, this is the feeling Hanks has captured. That feeling you have when you think back to Christmas as a child, or the moment you met someone or something that would change your life. The way that memory becomes an entity of its own, a marker of what makes you, you. Hanks brings that feeling to every story and it is nothing short of a delight.

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You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Twitter, @nomoreparades and Instagram @nomoreparades

Hanks, Tom Uncommon Type, (William Heinemann: London, 2017). 978-1785151514, 403pp., hardback.

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