Thursday 19 September 2019

Hollywood's Mr Nice has a way with words

Short Stories: Uncommon Type, Tom Hanks, William Heinemann, trade paperback, 405 pages, €19.99

Typecast: While a couple of Hanks' stories may end abruptly, on the whole, the film star has masterfully hewn an engaging collection
Typecast: While a couple of Hanks' stories may end abruptly, on the whole, the film star has masterfully hewn an engaging collection
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Hilary a white

Begrudgers might be disappointed to learn that Tom Hanks' book of short stories has silky-smooth momentum.

There always comes a slight wariness when we discover that someone who is generally renowned for one thing turns out to be very good at something else. We find it annoying, as if that person has taken more than their fair share of the talent pie and left only crumbs for us.

You'd have to travel far and wide to meet anybody with a bad word to say about Tom Hanks, which is most rare for someone of his global ubiquity. Besides being one of the most unanimously lauded stars of his generation - recent biographical drama turns such as Captain Phillips and Sully show he is as craft-hungry as ever - Hank's pliable mug is also the face of a litany of iconic roles that people clutch to their nostalgic hearts. His is the face and voice of whole childhoods.

So it is that the arrival of this short-story collection from the US screen institution is unlikely to be met with rolls of the eyes or catty begrudgery. But what makes Uncommon Type even harder to dismiss is the silky-smooth momentum and unforced hum that Hanks' writing glides along with here. Each of these 17 tales features a typewriter, be it in the backdrop or foreground. The actor's love of these vintage machines is well documented. What this title reveals is that he also knows how to use them.

'A Junket in the City of Light', in which "a guy in a huge movie" is shunted around promotional obligations, is perhaps the nearest we come to our perception of the real-life Hanks. Like everything here, humanity as a storyteller tempers the cynicism accumulated after a lifetime of dipping in and out of press tours. After days of terrifying itineraries and manhandling, his protagonist exhales, looks around and realises he is in Paris. It should be mawkish and sentimental but it is not. He achieves a similar feat in 'A Special Weekend' - a sumptuous family mini-saga.

The writing seems free of tension or neediness which is not usually the case with a first-timer. Take 'Go See Costas', in which an illegal immigrant from Bulgaria - perhaps a distant relative of Viktor in The Terminal - escapes a nightmarish civil-war past only to find new obstacles amid the starry wonderment of Manhattan. It is a superbly observed vignette about the hidden language of the conscience that will shame even the most wall-hungry of Donald Trump supporters.

His natural ability with dialogue is obviously a by-product of the thousands of scripts he would have read over 40 years of stage and screen work, but it is still startlingly well rendered at times. 'Stay With Us', one of several tales here that feature a journey to or from somewhere, takes the form of a screenplay complete with camera directions. It clips along with some whipsmart rat-tat-tat as its dotty ensemble cast of caricatures channel a humour somewhere between Harold Pinter and Mel Brooks.

'Three Exhausting Weeks' is another knee-slapper, albeit a more finely calibrated one. Two old school friends decide to embark on a romance on a whim only to find that their lives operate at radically different tempos. The voice of the male narrator is brilliantly weary. Belly laughs sneak up on you as he negotiates one of those situations that is only ideal if viewed from the outside looking in.

More subtle again is the mirth in 'A Month on Greene Street', where a divorcee moves into the burbs and convinces herself that her neighbour has her in his romantic crosshairs. While the ending is a little mute, it is in the colour-rich, clear-eyed characterisation, all assembled quietly under your nose, that Hanks proves that he demands to be taken seriously as a writer. That same lightness of touch is there in 'Welcome to Mars' as a surfing excursion provides succour and stress in equal measure. Yet again, however, its close is somewhat flat and abrupt.

'Alan Bean Plus Four' sees recurring characters who crop up in a couple of other places in Uncommon Type decide, over backyard beers, to construct a spaceship to fly around the Moon. The intention is a pithy slab of fantastic realism in which to add clay to his favourite characters but it all ends up feeling a bit throw-away.

There are also four ditties done in the style of a local newspaper columnist under the heading 'Our Town Today with Hank Fiset'. These are essentially soapboxes for Hanks to inhabit and perhaps slightly fetishise the good old days of this and that. Scarce of plot but with more of that sound voicing, they are self-indulgent frills that you are unlikely to give a second thought to.

A mixed bag then, but the ledger still leans heavily on the credit side. You'd be forgiven for asking why, in as thick a volume as Uncommon Type, these frivolities were left in. Well, Hanks' broad popularity does suggest a sturdy sales base is likely to usher forth upon release. A heftier page count can justify a heftier price tag. Publishers are known to think along these lines.

But say we were to leave cynicism aside for the time being, there is an argument for including these more gauche chapters.

Put simply, Hanks has a publishing career in front of him if he so chooses which, on the back of this collection, he seems ably equipped to apply himself to. The variety of voices here, all of them masterfully hewn and cosily embedded, suggest real talent at work. At 61, he has lost time to make up for, is surely allowed to see what sticks to the wall. We at least owe him that.

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