Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
Knopf, 2017; 405 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Like most readers who see the byline of Tom Hanks on a book jacket, I didn’t know what to expect with his collection of short stories called Uncommon Type. Would this be a vanity piece? A hard sell in the perks of typewriter ownership by way of a collection of fables? None of the above, lucky for me and any other reader who reads a copy. Hanks not only makes short fiction look easy, he makes it look fun; one has to wonder where he pulls the material from, since very little of it is about celebrity life, but a few stories in one stops caring; this collection is completely entertaining, whether the theme of the particular story that the reader is enjoying is serious or as close to slapstick as one can get (for the serious material see “Christmas Eve 1953” or “Go See Costas”; for hilarity there are the recurring characters from Hanks’s New Yorker story of “Alan Bean Plus Four” that show up in multiple stories in this collection, and “Stay With Us,” a story written in screenplay format that looks like a deceptively fast read but had me laughing so hard that it took me the longest amount of time to finish.
As has been stated in many celebrity profiles recently, Hanks is an avid user of the typewriter, and the book is smothered with his devotion for the machines. From the cover design of keys for grouping the title and byline to the photos of different typewriter makes and models that precede each chapter, the visual is present. Every story has the use. of a typewriter in it (and no, not every story is dated to time of commonplace typewriter use), and some stories place typewriter in the role of protagonist (“These Are the Meditations of My Heart”):
“Look here.” The old man waved his arm at the typewriters that lined the wall-mounted shelves. “These are machines. They are made of steel. They are works of engineers. They were built in factories in America, Germany, Switzerland. Do you know why they are up on that shelf right now?”
“Because they are for sale?”
“Because they were built to last forever!” The old man actually shouted. In him, she heard her father hollering. . . . She realized she was smiling at the old man.
The story moves from a lecture in the time-proven advantages of analog to the details of the machines; Hanks isn’t selling the typewriters himself, but, knowing typewriters like he does, we get the master treatment of entertainment in the exchange of dialogue as well as learning something about the design and execution of typewriters. The story has fun with typeface, aspects of certain models; the shopkeeper has his customer type on each model that she is drawn to, and her messages are fitting and amusing. For the Remington Noiseless she types “Quiet down. I am typing here.” For the Royal “Safari portable” she sends a shout-out to the opening line of the Isak Dinesen classic: “I had a farm in Africa.” The customer is playing, of course, an irony in the fact that she brought a “toy” typewriter into the shop for repair to begin with and walks out with a Hermès 2000, the “Mercedes-Benz” of typewriters. Hanks also plays with words, just like the customer who buys the machine, and our witness of his play is too short; I was wary of short stories, and short stories written by a celebrity, and by the end of the book I wanted more. Whether the book brings the goofy or serious, you get the feeling that Hanks is hopeful in regards to humanity, and you believe along with him for awhile.