Review by Hannah B.
Let me get this out right off the bat: Tom Hanks is a natural storyteller. His talent of telling stories on screen translates well on the page, as I’ve come to discover in Uncommon Type, his fiction debut.
The book holds seventeen stories in total, which allows for a wide range of topics to cover—family secrets and friendship dynamics; time and space travel; the struggles of an immigrant, a rising star, an old couple who lives along Route 88. As I read the first story, I could hear Hanks’s familiar voice narrating the eventful albeit short-lived relationship of Anna and her new friend-turned-boyfriend. But as I got deeper into the collection, his voice became fainter; the characters, clearer. And in the background, a kind of white noise, is a typewriter, tying all the stories together.
Among the strongest in this collection is “Alan Bean Plus Four,” a story previously published in the New Yorker. It follows four friends (the same set in the first story, “Three Exhausting Weeks”) who go on a trip around the moon on a homemade rocket ship. As absurd as it sounds, the story is propelled by its sense of adventure and wonder. It’s too good of a ride to be concerned with hows and whys. It only asks why not—why not come along?
The same sense of wonder is found in “The Past Is Important to Us,” a story of time travel vacations, of an old man who keeps going back to 1939 at $6 million a trip; and “Steve Wong Is Perfect,” the final story in the collection which features our four space-exploring friends, this time in bowling alleys, testing the boundaries of perfection.
The remarkable thing about these stories is the way Hanks builds tension, and how he rewards his readers after. Whether it’s four friends on a trip around the moon, an old man’s trip to the World’s Fair of ‘39, or a bowling ball’s trip from Steve Wong’s fingers to the pins waiting ahead, I find myself holding my breath in anticipation, rooting for the characters I have come to know in the span of a few short pages.
But not all stories share that same quality. Surprisingly, the stories set in show biz are the ones that fall a bit short. “A Junket in the City of Light” and “Who’s Who?” are both about celebrities at the edges of stardom, except only one of them actually crosses over, and even that isn’t as satisfying as, say, Steve Wong’s perfect strikes.
Hanks also shines in prose but loses a bit of his luster when he experiments with other forms, like the set of newspaper columns by a certain Hank Fiset, or in “Stay with Us,” a story written as a screenplay which, I feel, distracts from an otherwise charming narrative.
One thing all the stories have in common, aside from the typewriters, is that they are all light at heart. Even the ones with relatively heavier themes, such as “Christmas Eve 1953” and “Go See Costas,” still reward us with some type of redemption in the end. For some it may be too neat and dandy, nothing but a rose-colored world. But I personally see it as a welcome break, the needed breath of fresh air amidst our current reality. It paints a quaint world, one nostalgic for the days when we were free to dream without limits, to reach for the stars and actually make it.
Hannah writes stuff and goes places.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not expressly reflect the views of Fully Booked. That said, we love our authors anyway.]