‘Uncommon Type’ Treads Familiar Ground

3 Stars

Uncommon Type cover
Courtesy of Knopf

In the world of Tom Hanks’s short story collection, “Uncommon Type,” college students happily go surfing with Dad on their birthdays. Women move to idyllic suburbs where children are “out there, teeming, laughing, bolting to and fro in various shades of flesh.” Four friends build a rocket ship in their backyard, fly to the moon, and come safely home again. For Hanks, the greenest grass is in America, where everyone is well-intentioned, everything is clean, and every ending is happy. “Uncommon Type” is almost surreal in its total escapism. Hanks creates a world anyone would want to live in—and one that is a far cry from the real thing.

It may be too easy to ascribe such theatricality to Tom Hanks, of all people. The author is the elephant in the room: it is hard to go long without attaching his face to a narrator, or reading a sentence in his voice. Certainly, the folksiness of Hanks’s tone evokes the bumbling character type—like Forrest Gump—that the author has so famously played in movies. In print, as on screen, Hanks portrays everymen. They are charming—but they aren’t complex.

Still, Hanks’s enthusiasm is endearing. He writes truly pleasant stories, ones without a hint of cynicism. With mixed results, he is also not afraid to indulge his own interests. Hanks describes certain topics with obsessive procedural detail. He outlines, for example, the minutiae of paddleboarding or press tours. For better or worse, Hanks quickly remedies any possible ignorance—he leaves no stone unturned when it comes to his pet subjects. World Wars I and II come up repeatedly, as does outer space. And of course, there are the typewriters: One appears in every story, the gimmick that ties the collection together.

If the book has a singular Achilles heel, it is that Hanks’s ethos of enthusiastic haplessness permeates the writing. On a line-to-line basis, “Uncommon Type” often falls flat. Hanks’s folksy vocabulary is by turns charming (as in the use of the word “chockablock”) and grating (as in that word’s endless repetition). His sentences ring a little too colloquial: Yes, people talk with comma splices, but that doesn’t mean they are nice to read. Hanks also has an affinity for the word “being” (as a gerund) when a different construction would be more readable. His constant use of exclamation points is too much. This is not a work to examine at length; it does best when read quickly and without much thought.

Notably, the book is at its weakest when Hanks describes female characters. This is a rare occurrence: of sixteen stories, only three feature a female lead. Unfortunately, having even fewer would have served the writing quality (if not the Bechdel test). Hanks’s women are mostly “strong”—that is to say, they do not fumble or stutter the way the men do. But fumbling and stuttering are what Hanks writes best. They make up the one character type that he excels at. For some reason, and to the book’s detriment, Hanks has decided that the ordinary-Joe (or Jane) is a role women shouldn’t play.

“Uncommon Type” has flaws. The stories can be unrealistic and unartistic, with a one-trick pony of a character type and a simplistic moral outlook. But if Hanks has one story, then at least it is a comforting one. This is a book about nostalgia—every time a typewriter appears, at least one character greets it with enthusiasm. Smartphones are acknowledged, but mostly looked down upon. One story is set in a halcyon 1950s; in another, the protagonist time-travels back to a bucolic 1939. Immigrants and Broadway hopefuls travel to New York City to make their ways, and they succeed. The suburbia of the American Dream really exists. People are happy without being ambitious. They are satisfied. They are content. This is the conceit of the text: Some things are worth slowing down for.

Is Hanks’s book one of them? Not really, but there are far worse worlds to immerse oneself in for a little while. This is an anthology of undiluted escapism, and it plays that role with brio. Hanks makes the reader’s job easy. “Uncommon Type” is always simple—but in its better moments, it avoids being derivative. The author tells classic stories in a palatable way. So if you have a few hours on an especially gloomy afternoon, when thinking sounds difficult, give “Uncommon Type” a try. Visit a world where America has always been and will always be great. It’s not realistic—but that’s the charm.

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