The Hippo


May 26, 2020








Uncommon Type: Some Stories, by Tom Hanks
(Knopf, 403 pages)


 Actors understand plot, pacing and character interaction, but they don’t necessarily understand writing. The discount bins are filled with books written by performers who think that they are also excellent writers. It doesn’t really work that way. 

Not to get Zen on you, but you can only be a writer if you are a writer. 
Still, given how long Tom Hanks has been storytelling, you’d almost expect him to write a good story or, in this case, series of stories. And lucky us — that’s exactly what he’s done in this collection of thoughtful character-driven, non-blockbuster short stories. 
Uncommon Type: Some Stories is nothing short of a pleasant surprise. 
If you’re looking for a thriller, you won’t find it in this book. It’s not a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of thing. It contains no arcing hero’s journey or even a multi-page car crash. What you will find is a collection of reflective short stories that define people’s actions. You’ll meet a family on Christmas Eve, an actress trying to make her way in New York City, and a now older soldier who fought in Europe. You read about credible slices of life. 
The skill to present clear characters and surroundings clearly comes from Hank’s skill as an elite actor who transforms himself into a new character for each of his movies. (Case in point, Hanks’ recent portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee in The Post is magnificent.) 
Hanks clearly researches how people behave and he understands the motivation behind each action for the parts he takes. 
In short, to be an excellent actor you need to be an expert on human behavior. And to be a good writer, you must do the same thing. 
Uncommon Type is a book that’s meant to be savored like a box of chocolates. Read one of the stories, think about it, think about it some more, and then go ahead and read another story. 
Although the stories are separate and independent of each other, Hanks connects them by placing a typewriter in each one. It’s a subtle tool, but it’s also brilliant, the typewriter being an absolute symbol of storytelling throughout the ages. 
It also turns out that Hanks has a way with words. He’s skilled, his writing is powerful and his voice strong. 
Take this passage, for example:
Kirk Allen was still asleep, in bed, under a quilt and an old Army blanket. As it had been since 2003, when he was five years old, his bedroom was also the back room of the family home, one he shared with the Maytag washer and dryer, on old, chipped, out-of-tune spinet piano, the idle sewing machine his mother had not used since the second Bush administration, and an Olivetti-Underwood electric typewriter that had been rendered inoperable when Kirk spilled a root beer float into its innards. 
You can almost hear Hanks reading the story (Yowza!) and if you listen to the audiobook you will indeed hear his voice as he is the narrator. Hanks has a clear, organized writing style that is recognizable and consistent. 
I want to add a mild language warning to this review. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but I was jolted to see that some of Hank’s stories contain harsh language. 
I wasn’t surprised that the language was used in the story, it was organic, and it is language that would have been used by the characters. The language does not detract; I was just surprised because Hanks seems like such a nice guy — what’s he doing using those kinds of words?  
I had expected happy, Hallmark-like stories and Hanks decided to go deeper.  He decided to flex some writing and acting muscles to become his characters, even down to their speech. 
What we end up getting in Uncommon Type is a collection of stark, realistic and well-written vignettes from an emerging writer who knows his stuff. 
I look forward to more from Hanks. His skill and intelligent handling of the human condition is a literary delight.
— Wendy E. N. Thomas 

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