There’s a moment in ‘The Past is Important to Us’, a short story in ‘Uncommon Type’ about a billionaire businessman so in love with a woman from the past he travels back to 1939 just to see her, when the black attendant monitoring the time machine is asked why he never uses it himself. ‘Being African American’, he replies ‘1939 New York doesn’t hold the same wonder for me.’ This is supposed to be Tom Hanks brushing up against a long legacy of racial discrimination in America. But, it almost comes off as more of a joke. The theme isn’t ever brought up again, and Hanks go on to implicitly condone that racism. The protagonist goes back in time anyway, and it’s a wonderland: a world of hot coffee done right, pies for two cents a slice, luxury hotels, unimpeded optimism, of pretty women who talk like New Yorkers are supposed to. Hank forgets about the historical plight of black people, and asks you to do the same. He lamplights you, as though in acknowledging racism, it ceases to be a thing. ‘Uncommon Type’ does more than just repeat that wilful ignorance; it is built around it.
It is something recognisable pumped through a sepia filter, given a touch of text and uploaded exclusively because someone thought it made them look good
‘Uncommon Type’ is Tom Hanks’ first collection of short stories. Yes, before you ask. It’s that Tom Hanks. Forrest Gump Tom Hanks. Big Tom Hanks. Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks. Seen here being published because he’s Tom Hanks. There are seventeen, all in all, and they’re supposed to be based on typewriters. But they aren’t really. Only one or two are actually about typewriters. They’re actually more about what typewriters represent, which is to say bleary-eyed, ‘back-in-the-good-ol’-days’ nostalgia. This is comfort blanket fiction. Soft on the outside, gooey on the inside guff. Hanks’ world is the normal world with the edges sanded off. It is life as you want to remember it. Even when it’s bittersweet and sad, it tries to be heart-warming. Except, well. It doesn’t really work.
Hanks isn’t a terrible writer, by any stretch of the imagination. His stories are occasionally funny and sometimes poignant. His prose is readable at worst and, at its best, it makes you feel a little bit like Tom Hanks is whispering in your ear. But his stories are too safe; they’re aggressively bland, belligerently dull, so unerringly middle-of-the-road, it should be illegal crap; it’s the kind of stuff you’re likely to find in Poundland. The problem isn’t so much that the stakes are low, it’s more that Hanks doesn’t know what to do with them. There’s no ebb or flow to his stories, they are narrative mono-tones. Hanks introduces recurring motifs on the final page of his stories, and his characters all speak with the same voice as they seem to deal with the same struggles, occupying the same vaguely upper middle-class space. Looking at their lives feels like looking at someone’s Snapchat story; it is a weird, romanticised vision of life. It is something recognisable pumped through a sepia filter, given a touch of text and uploaded exclusively because someone thought it made them look good. If these people aren’t business magnates, they’re talking about expensive coffee or superfoods. There’s nothing here that resonates with you, that grabs you, that meaningfully applies to your own life. It only ever feels like it does. And, frankly Tom Hanks, that’s not quite enough.
More than anything, though, these stories feel a little bit wrong-headed. The little episode I quoted at the start of this review isn’t a one-off, it’s indicative. ‘Uncommon Type’ is consistently ignorant stuff. It is hard to read stories in which an immigrant qualifies for citizenship and spends his time singing songs about great America is, when President Trump is busily shutting those path-ways down. It’s hard, too, to read about the millionaire businessman in ‘The Past is Important To Us’ going back in time to harmlessly creep on a woman he barely knows, when Harvey Weinstein is coming under fire for sexual assault. Hanks seems pretty perniciously intent on presenting straight white businessmen as mostly harmless, too. In the real world, they’re not. And reading stories in which they are only makes you feel dirty, as though somehow complicit. When Hanks isn’t coating himself in literary bubble wrap and doggedly playing it safe, he’s refusing to acknowledge how shitty the world can be. Hanks’ stories are never as deliciously aware of the world as stories should be. They’re wilfully fusty, and tangibly artificial. There’s too much bloody fiction in this fiction.
There’s nothing here that resonates with you, that grabs you, that meaningfully applies to your own life
Maybe it’s just because I’m the kind of embittered wannabe who won’t ever get a short story collection published by Penguin. Maybe it’s because Tom Hanks kind of weirds me out. Maybe it’s because I’m the kind of human being who actually likes ‘The Odyssey’. I don’t know. But I can’t sit here and tell you Tom Hanks’ ‘Uncommon Type’ is worth your money. It really isn’t. It is passable at best, outright egregious at worst and there’s far too much good literature out there for you to waste your time with it. Read something else, take up football, fill a wheelie bin with gold and try to dive into it like scrooge McDuck, just don’t read this.