Book Talk: 'Uncommon Type' by Tom Hanks - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Uncommon Type' by Tom Hanks

Alexander Wallace goes Hollywood.
Tom Hanks is doubtlessly one of America’s favorite actors - and, in fairness, he’s probably one of the world’s favorite actors. He’s also, by all accounts, a nice guy. After getting COVID, he donated his cells for antibody research. He’s what we all wish Hollywood were, when the reality of the industry inevitably disappoints us. He is a philanthropist and an advocate for space exploration.

What you, dear reader, probably didn’t know is that Tom Hanks is also a short story writer. In 2017, he published his first collection by the name of Uncommon Type. I will admit to you that I picked this book from my local library purely on a whim. There was an uncharitable part of me that was expecting the stories to be maudlin and stilted; in other words, what most of Hollywood would have produced in this vaunted medium.

It’s my pleasure to tell you that Hanks is actually an astoundingly good short story writer. His stories are the sort of thing an English teacher would love: heavy on plot and characters, with very little vestiges of pulp. It’s not my standard choice for Warped Factor, but it was simply too good to pass up.

There’s a very real melancholy to a lot of these stories, as people search for things that may not exist, or exist in circumstances that the characters find hostile or alien. Most of these stories are within the realm of the real, with a number being set a few decades in the past. There’s one about an actor in 1970s New York trying to make it in the cutthroat world of theater, and one about a World War II veteran in fifties America having to deal with how his life has turned out differently than one of his comrades. There’s a quite moving one about a Greek immigrant to the United States, and another about a rich man trying to find a location for a new business enterprise.

Two, though, are unabashedly science fiction. One is a time travel story about obsession, boasting perhaps the most moving conclusion of any of the stories. Another is a Jules Verne-esque romp where a group of suburbanites make their own rocket and take a trip to the moon. Neither are hard science fiction, but neither need to be; they’re still character focused, and the genre has a proud history of that.

One of the striking things in the stories of Uncommon Type, fantastic or otherwise, is how Hanks is able to find beauty in the mundane. This is nowhere more visible than in a story about a woman in the modern day who, despite all her screens, finds something to love in a typewriter found at a church yard sale. The entire collection was inspired by Hanks’ collection of typewriters, and he clearly has a love for those dated writing machines. It’s perhaps a little strange, but as an avid swing dancer, I can’t exactly fault him for it.

Uncommon Type is a demonstration of why you should never judge a book by stereotypes you have about its author. We think of actors as a vapid, narcissistic sort, and their books as reflecting that temperament. Tom Hanks is neither vapid nor narcissistic; he is someone with a keen grasp of what it means to be human, and what makes a story worth reading. It makes sense, really, given how he has been part of so many stories worth watching, and we get to taste the fruits of that experience.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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