Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

"Uncommon Type" by Tom Hanks (William Heinemann, 2017)

I'm glad that someone like him has published short stories, though 400 pages is perhaps too much of a good thing. There are 17 stories (some sharing characters and settings), each mentioning a typewriter (one character says they're useful because "She could type out some remark, take a digital photo of it with her phone, then post it onto her blog and Facebook pages", p.228). The stories have quite simple structures - hen-pecked husband strikes back, etc. - and they tend to tell rather than show, not leaving much to the imagination - "her mouth open, her head tilted in the body language known universally as a prelude to a desired kiss" (p.109). I can see how he's used material from the films he's been in. The dialog's realistic and the characters recognisable, with stories to tell. The language grows denser sometimes -

Dora's righteousness devolved into deep-crevassed silence, punctuated with outbursts so fast, loud, and vitriolic as to be near-Shakespearean. Frank, at the wheel, sipping on his cold coffee or warming Coca-Cola, acted as referee, therapist, fact-checker, and cop, depending on the point made or offense taken. Kirk, as his defensive stance, pulled out book after book, reading like he was a chain-smoker with a carton of menthols. (p.96)


Bette fired up the one appliance she truly prized, the espresso maker. Made in Germany, the stainless-steel behemoth had cost a thousand predivorce dollars, took up nearly a square yard of counter space, and sported as many gauges and valves as the submarine in Das Boot. She so loved the apparatus she often greeted it in the morning with "Hey, big boy". (p.118)

There are some infelicities - e.g.

  • "There was a surf shop, a recent and ubiquitous Starbucks" (p.98) (is "ubiquitous" right here?)
  • "An antique plow, rusted and in need of a horse, sat in the center of a patch of grass beside, incongruously, an array of solar panels" (p.128) ("incongruously" isn't needed)

In general there are too many words for my liking. I liked "Welcome to Mars", but I thought the stories on p.145-186 were weak, and I struggled to complete "Stay with us". "A Special Weekend" brings together strengths and weaknesses. A 10 year old, Kenny, is picked up in a borrowed red sports car by his mother who abandoned him (and the rest of the family) when he was 5. She takes him to the town where he grew up and she still lives. She's done ok for herself. She pampers him with ice-cream and trips. The eateries and recreations add atmosphere. The story's mostly from the boy's PoV, though for a page we get her PoV. At the end they fly back in a friend's light plane - "Kenny's first flight in an aeroplane was the most amazing event of his life", we're told. He sees his home-town from a new perspective. He even gets a chance to pilot the plane. When they part, she disappears just like that. The characters are clear enough, and she's a caring parent while he's around. He realises how she and he have changed. The material's all there for a more moving story. Were some inert material removed and a psychological twist added, it would have worked. What I'd like more of (in this story and others) is ambiguity, tension or surprise.

Other reviews

  • Mark Lawson (There is often a powerful sense of other lives imagined at a level that goes deeper than writerly research. ... although Hanks thanks many names for editorial advice, they could sometimes have done more. The best sentences have a serviceable plain, clean style: “For lunch they ate at a little market that also had sidewalk tables with checkerboard cloths.” Elsewhere, though, there are clumsy word-clumps: a sequence involving both “ham salad” and “ham radio” becomes confusing, while “some” occurs three times within 11 words. Oddly, these are the sort of pile-ups that actors’ ears lead them to remove routinely from scripts.)
  • Lucy Scholes (It’s rare that a book is actually painful to read, but getting through Tom Hanks’s short-story collection, Uncommon Type, was like pulling teeth. ... we have 17 stories, ranging from downright terrible to decidedly mediocre)
  • Heller McAlpin (a lot of these stories feel like TV shows with stock casting ... Is this great literature? No — it's too generic and mawkish. But Uncommon Type offers heartfelt charm along with nostalgia for sweeter, simpler times — even if they never really were quite so sweet or simple.)
  • John Boyne (Hanks is at his most comfortable - and I’m not sure if this a compliment or a criticism - when he’s creating the type of solid American landscape that’s a feature of wholesome, patriotic films ... In the most memorable moments, such as These are the Meditations of my Heart, where a woman buys a faulty typewriter and is then given a lesson in their history and mechanics from a repair man, Hanks allows his passion to shine through. It makes for some strong writing, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed by his tendency towards sentimentality ... So, mixed results, really and, like a box of chocolates, you know never what you’re gonna get. (Sorry.) But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print. It’s too long, though.)


  1. Dear Tim

    When I was writing my 'American Anagrams' I discovered that Tom Hanks is an anagram of Monk shat. Tom is a Cancerian and they often make good writers. I have now bought 'Broken Cities' by Katy Evans-Bush. It is only 32 pages long but well worth reading.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish