Look, anybody can write a book. That’s not the same as saying it’s easy, only that writing is the one truly democratic medium because the use of a language as craft is available to all who speak it. Writers, unlike painters, pianists, or opera singers, require neither specialization, nor expensive instruments, nor training. Oh, there’s the option of grants, MFA programs and, if you happen to be from the nineteenth century, a stately garret in the country—but none of this is required. There’s such a thing as a natural, just as there’s such a thing as a scribbler who writes out of pure enjoyment, or a hobbyist who persists until a career gradually comes into focus. And writing needn’t take up all your time either; even a cursory glance at the biographies of literature’s true immortals reveals a doctor, an insurance officer, an exterminator, a bank clerk, and, in the case of Jack London, a professional oyster pirate.
It’s true that the bulk of these seventeen—seventeen!—stories sound like Tom Hanks movies.
All this is to say that there’s no reason to assume that Uncommon Type: Some Stories, the new collection of typewriter-themed reveries by Tom Hanks, star of the 1982 made-for-TV anti-Dungeons & Dragons screed Mazes and Monsters, should be a total abomination just because it sounds like one. These kinds of things deserve to be judged by their own merits, seen with good humor. After all, not every Tom Hanks movie is sentimental garbage, and he’s been of certain service to bookishness in the past; he somehow got Cloud Atlas made; and after starring in two Dave Eggers adaptations, it’s possible that Hanks absorbed some affable Gen-X swagger—not to mention that one of these fictions appeared in The New Yorker. In a way, it’s a low bar to clear, as all we ought to ask of Tom Hanks the writer is stories (all of them with titles like “The Past Is Important to Us” and “A Junket in the City of Light”) that play like miniature Tom Hanks movies. There are worse things.
Or so I thought. Then I read the sentence “We kissed a lot and touched each other in our wonderful places” and realized I was in hell. It’s true that the bulk of these seventeen—seventeen!—stories sound like Tom Hanks movies. Or rather, they are stories that could have been written by an alien whose only exposure to the planet earth is through Tom Hanks movies. A bunch of barbeque buddies undertake an impromptu voyage to the moon. A man time travels to the 1939 World’s Fair. A merry Bulgarian immigrant wins over a stodgy restaurant owner. A World War II vet discovers the spirit of Christmas. There are two reoccurring characters: MDash, an émigré from a “sub-Saharan village,” who is overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of American citizenship, and alter-ego Hank Fiset, a plucky newspaperman with a 1920’s vocabulary who writes in one of his columns:
So, what’s Noo in Noo Yawk? Too much, if you have fond memories of the place, but little if the Naked City leaves you feeling, well, naked. I think NYC comes off way better on TV and in the movies, when a taxi is just a whistle away and superheroes save the day. In the real world (our) every day in Gotham is a little like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a lot like Baggage Claim after a long, crowded flight.
Here’s a little writing prompt for you: rewrite the above so that I no longer wish to be boiled alive in pickle brine.
That’s not fair, of course. This book-shaped object made of cardboard and paper was never going to be a book exactly. It is a gift, something that parents give to their college-bound children as revenge for making themselves difficult to understand. The leery blurbs by the likes of Steve Martin, Stephen Fry, and Carl Hiaasen are all the warning you need, and by the time you read the sentence that begins “A girlfriend changes a man from the shoes he exercises in right up to how he cuts his hair,” it’s really more your fault than that of Hanks, the human co-star of Beasley the Dog vehicle Turner & Hooch, that you wound up in this predicament. So why bother summoning the energy to despair of what is ultimately an inoffensive folly? Because that’s what Uncommon Type is for. When I despise it, it is because I am using it correctly.
The conceit here is that each story is inspired by a different typewriter, so a black-and-white photograph of an Olivetti, Royal, or Continental faces the first page of each. A lot of Hanks’s prose is given over to ridiculously breathless typewriter-porn like this, from “These Are the Meditations of My Heart.”
The machine was a portable; the body was plastic. The ribbon was two-tone, black over red, and there was a hole in the lid where the name Smith Corona or Brother or Olivetti had once been plugged. There was also a reddish leatherette carrying case with a half-sleeve opening and push-button latch. She punched three of the keys—A, F, P—and they all clacked onto the paper and settled back again. So, the thing worked, sort of.
Later in the same story, we’re told that, “A typewriter is a tool. In the right hands, one that can change the world,” and receive a brief history of the “sixty-year-old marvel of Swiss craftsmanship” and the Epoca typeface. The problem here isn’t the bespoke fetishism of the inanimate—that’s all completely healthy—but that Tom Hanks, whose trademark since Dragnet is comedy urination, insists on surface at the expense of content.
These are feel-good stories guaranteed to make you feel terrible.
That’s the other thing: in four hundred pages, there’s hardly even a hint of conflict or a suggestion that American life is anything less than a holiday where everyone rides Schwinn bikes, leaves the immigration office to go bowling, and has a dog named Biscuit. If there’s anything good to observe about Uncommon Type, it’s that Hanks may have accidently revived a long-lost literary form: the idyll, as practiced by Goethe, placid and innocuous pastorals that invoke ornate symbolism. But then, Hanks is not Goethe, nor is he a symbologist. (In fact, there’s no such thing as a symbologist, Hanks just plays one in The Da Vinci Code.) These are feel-good stories guaranteed to make you feel terrible, because there must be more to life, even for Tom Hanks, who is still the second-best part of Joe Versus the Volcano. I could, at this juncture, puzzle over “Stay With Us,” a screenplay about a whimsical motel called Olympus, gawk at the vaudeville of fresh-off-the-boat duo Assan and Ibrahim discovering hot dogs, or brood over the book’s nostalgic landscape of old timey cinemas, but by now you get the point. This collection is so light on ideas, it practically hovers.
What is a Tom Hanks? Is it something that can be experienced, some impalpable pulp or benign doofery trussed up for the Academy Awards, pleasant in interviews, famously kind, a blank space for us to project boyhood fantasies upon? Or is it a phantom, an all-purpose jocularity, variously garbed as a gangster or a general, but possessing no center? Generally understood to be the boy next door, whose high school yearbook photo inexplicably captures the man as accurately at 61, Tom Hanks is felt to be lovable at his worst. The impregnable constellation we call “Tom Hanks,” with its observations on what life is like a box of, can give no real offense, can do us no lasting harm. But Uncommon Type is pushing it, man, a collection of clichés that only deserves clichés in return. Namely this old chestnut: don’t quit your day job.