Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type has a very strong flavour and sets a clear mood across its short stories. You also need to be in a very specific mood to enjoy this book. Part nostalgic, part meandering, and red, white and blue through and through, this book won’t be for every reader’s palette. Sadly, it wasn’t for mine.
I had high hopes for the book but I was also aware that I wasn’t picking up a brilliant literary gem or a critically-acclaimed piece of writing. I just wanted some good short stories that captured my interest and took me for a brief voyage into the worlds and lives of new characters. I was ready to read something that I could dip in and out of and felt an anthology was the perfect match. While it did meet the brief in terms of letting me jump in and out and being mostly fine writing, it just didn’t hold my interest and I found I wasn’t particularly enamoured with any of the characters.
‘I was ready to read something that I could dip in and out of and felt an anthology was the perfect match.’
There were three main things that put me off this book. Individually, I may have been able to overlook or forgive them, but cumulatively, they were too much to skim past.
One of the first things I noticed about the book was how American it was. Between the language, the references and the characters, it would’ve been hard to imagine this book being set anywhere other than the USA. Most of the culture I consume on a daily basis is American, or at the very least, Western-centric, so I didn’t anticipate this was going to be the barrier that it was. But by the end of a few stories, I started to find it grating and disruptive. I imagine the stories may be very atmospheric and relatable for an American reader, however many of the references and characterisations felt very cliched and forced. In many stories the American setting felt aggressive and overbearing and some of the references came across as tacky and overplayed.
‘One of the first things I noticed about the book was how American it was.’
To be fair, the first short story does revolve around a character getting their American citizenship, which does obviously lean strongly towards an American story, however this was a theme that I found almost unavoidable in each of the other short stories as well. I also recognise that the phrase ‘write what you know’ does seem to be a backbone of this anthology, which again explains the American viewpoint, however it still doesn’t make the intense Americanism seem necessary to me. I really didn’t enjoy this aspect of the book and I think it tainted my view from the beginning.
I also felt like the stories were trying to explore or examine great universal truths. Instead of leaving me with some profound wisdom or new perspective, I found myself disappointed and questioning if there is anything original in this line of fiction. While I understand that it is hard to be original, especially when working with a confined number of words, the moments of humanity explored in these stories felt bland and unmoving.
For me, it came back to the ‘write what you know’ premise. Many of the stories seemed in line with Hanks’ world and interactions, however they offered no new perspective or outlook on these topics and ended up feeling like quite common stories. There were exceptions, with some of the stories and characters being hidden gems, however they weren’t enough to redeem the book and didn’t compensate for the whole. I’ll admit that perhaps I’m too cynical and judged this aspect quite harshly, but I think writers need to work really hard to find something fresh when talking about everyday life and this book didn’t manage it well.
‘Many of the stories seemed in line with Hanks’ world and interactions, however they offered no new perspective or outlook on these topics.’
My final issue was the structure and style of the stories themselves. The narration had its moments where the nostalgia and tangential details hit the right notes and the voice was charming and quaint. But again, these moments were rare and not enough to compensate for the other sections. For the most part, the narration felt verbose. I was itching to get my red pen and trim these stories back. Whatever the word count, these stories didn’t feel short and many dragged on.
The biggest issue though, was that these stories lack tension and development. Often, there was no recognisable climax and little to no character development. This may have been a way of exploring everyday life, but again, this avenue of fiction has been well and truly covered. Sadly, Uncommon Type didn’t bring anything new or refreshing to this take. The anthology would’ve been much better if it were made up of vignettes that explored similar moments as they would’ve been more powerful if brevity had been exercised.
It is clear that Hanks has a passion for writing, however it felt like this book showed little motive to express anything beyond the writing itself. To be frank, it didn’t feel like he had anything to say. And while this could open up a whole discussion around art for art’s sake, I won’t tread down that path. Overall, it felt like this book was setting itself up to be a deep exploration of the human condition but mostly ended up being a slow wander down a path riddled with typewriters, actors and space facts.
‘The thing I enjoyed most about this book was Hanks showing off his other passions.’
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was Hanks showing off his other passions. The details about typewriters and space were really interesting and felt like the most developed part of many of the stories. The stories about actors were less interesting and felt too familiar and cliche, but the passion still shines through. It was refreshing to have these small moments of enjoyment from the book and they became the highlight during my reading.
If you’re after a slow skip through Tom Hanks’ passions, then this might be the book for you. If you’re after something with a little more depth or pace, keep looking.
Title: Uncommon Type
Author: Tom Hanks
Publisher: Cornerstone Publishing
Extent: 416 pages
Read If You Like: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas