It’s possible, but highly improbable, for one person to be so gifted they excel at everything they attempt. That’s the thing about polymaths; they’re exceedingly rare. While Tom Hanks’ debut short story collection Uncommon Type does not earn him a place next to Steve Martin or the late Sam Shepard on the dais of those who are both fantastic actors as well as fantastic writers, it does make the case that he may climbing his way up.
Uncommon Type is definitely a book written by Tom Hanks. It’s filled with actors, jaunts through both space and time, and typewriters, an object which occupies a place in each of the short stories (Hanks is an avid collector, and said in the documentary California Typewriter that he owns upwards of 250 of the mechanical monstrosities). The story collection also features dialogue that one can’t help but hear in Hanks’ voice, crammed with yowzas and lemmes and cuppa joes. This audiobook should be a best-seller.
Uncommon Type is composed of 17 stories. One is a one-act play with impossible-to-stage visual cues; four are crotchety musings of an old-timey reporter, Hank Fiset; a trio of stories focus on a group of four friends who seem like they’d make for an excellent United Colors Of Benetton ad: the unnamed narrator (a stand-in for Hanks); his on-again, off-again girlfriend Anna; Steve Wong; and newly minted American citizen Mohammed Dayax-Abdo (or MDash, for short). One of the characters describes them as “like a TV show with diversity casting.”
This “cast” of four embarks on upon the most memorable adventures in the collection. In “Three Exhausting Weeks,” Hanks’ unnamed narrator falls for the cartoonish type-A Anna before realizing that although the tortoise and the hare can be friends, they probably shouldn’t date. In “Alan Bean Plus Four” the quartet embark on a surreal expedition to the moon and back, with the absurdity of the journey rationalized by stating that sure, landing on the moon is hard, but simply sling-shooting around it easy enough once you escape Earth’s gravity. The gang’s final tale, “Steve Wong Is Perfect,” sees the titular Steve Wong attain national notoriety in the wake of bowling an improbably long streak of perfect games at his local alley.
There are moments where the semblance of a great writer hides just beneath the surface—some combination of John Updike’s colloquial, heartfelt, tales of Americana infused with the child-like wonder for the cosmos of someone reading Carl Sagan or H.G. Wells for the first time. It’s in these stories, like “Alan Bean Plus Four” or “The Past Is Important To Us” (a story about an older gentlemen who spends an inordinate amount of time and money traveling back to the World’s Fair in 1939 simply to glimpse a stranger in a green dress) that Hanks feels most at home. The writing doesn’t feel like work in these instances—it comes naturally and surprises.
The inverse are those moments when Hanks is either entirely predictable or when his whimsy becomes mawkish. There’s also an awful lot of ogling in these stories, and the male gaze is alive and well in Uncommon Type. In “Three Exhausting Weeks,” Anna is described as having the “lean, rope-taut body of a triathlete.” In “A Junket In The City Of Lights” the character of Willa Sax, written so that her name can easily be mispronounced as Willa Sex, is objectified in every which way as the narrator stares at her image on their movie’s one poster.
It’d be easy to grade Hanks on a curve, but truth is, there’s enough talent to avoid patronizing any old attention-seeking actor-turned-author. George Saunders he’s not, but that doesn’t mean he can’t some day be the first Tom Hanks (writer).