Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

30 thoughts on “Tom Hanks, short stories.

  1. “He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy.”
    Perhaps that why I find less to criticise than you Cath. More likely its because you are a more skilled reader than I am – your comments have certainly helped me work out what’s needed in a short story and what can be omitted. I enjoyed them on first reading but now I think I was taking them rather as tales to be told round a campfire, after all the dogies had been put to bed. Laid back rambling as opposed to tightly told short stories worthy of rereading.
    Thanks for those comments, Cath. They really help.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Mike, for the loan.
      I like the idea that I’m a ‘skilled reader’, but I’m not sure my opinion on them means you should change your mind.

      To my mind, the first job of a story is to entertain, and most of these did entertain me. It was only after I’d gone back over them for a second time that I put on my critical hat. Some might say that’s not fair. I think you’re right about them being ‘campfire’ stories, and on those grounds, I’m not sure it’s fair to get to critical.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I must go back and compare notes. I enjoyed it too, overall. There was only that one that I failed to follow, and in a collection of 17 I think that’s pretty good.

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  2. I’m intrigued. And curious. I hadn’t known about this one – probably because I don’t really read short stories. But, put aside the negative aspects you mentioned, the overall appeal sounds like the kind of read that pulls me in.

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  3. We most likely have high expectations of someone who is already well known and has a built-in fan base. He cant be an amazing actor and a brilliant writer. That just wouldn’t be fair! Thanks for the honest review.

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  4. The writing style has a lot too with personal entertainment, as does life experience. Some things we like, some we don’t and not everyone will have matching ideas. I’ve read outstanding reviews but disliked the story and I used to wonder what I’ve missed that everybody else saw in it. Often, my mood dictates what I enjoy. I put down a book because I can’t get into it and when I go back to it I can. But an honest review goes a long way to helping selection. Thanks, Cath. I don’t think this is for me, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree, Lynda, personal preferences are everything. Like you, mood often dictates my reactions, but I’ve tried this at various different moments and still find some just aren’t ‘my thing’. It would be a smaller world if we did all agree about what makes good art, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I join you in tipping the hat. I like to think that seeing that book spine on his shelf is a big buzz, even though he’s got all those oscars and best seller films to reflect on.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There were a couple of the stories that made it very hard to forget that Tom Hanks is also an actor. I rather liked the one, which described the publicity circuit from the point of view of a break-through actor.

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  5. Plenty of time to write between takes, I guess … if that sounds arch, then all credit to the guy – I have plenty of time but haven’t produced a book of short stories. He could afford a ghost-writer, though … whoops, there I go again!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m with you, Cath. I’m okay not getting this one. Hey, for all his work on digging into character, I’m betting it was fun to be the one CREATING the characters this time, and “directing,” as it were, rather than being given characters to mold and refine into someone worth watching. Good for him, I’ll say 🙂 And an excellent review by you! 🙂

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