Another kind of role: Tom Hanks' tales of common and uncommon lives

October 17 2017

Title: Uncommon Type - Some Stories; Author: Tom Hanks; Publisher: William Heinemann/Penguin Random House UK: Pages: 416; Price: Rs 599



Known for frequently essaying ordinary, likable and good-natured characters facing extraordinary situations in his films, Tom Hanks brings the same aspect to his story-telling. A man is exhausted by his energetic girl friend-turned-girlfriend, the teenager becoming a man on seeing a new side of his father, and a small-time actor discovering stardom's reality are among the subjects of his examination of the human condition.


Like his films, which range from courtroom dramas to war and espionage thrillers to unconventional romances and more, Hanks covers a wide spectrum in his debut collection of short stories in a host of styles, situations and settings.


While the two-consecutive Oscar-winning actor's penchant for the telling dialogues or scene or even background is evident, the approach -- like his films -- is multi-layered, atmospheric and features both alternating regularity and unpredictability as well as complexity of human existence and the tone is usually gentle, conversational and occasionally nostalgic.


There is one pervading motif throughout -- typewriters, of which Hanks has a large collection; they figure in all stories, as the book's name indicates. Yes, it is that type of type.


They are a crucial prop in "These are the Meditations of My Heart" leading the protagonist, recently-separated from the "Knothead", to find a new perspective to life; a cherished heirloom in recurring ruminations of a newspaper columnist; a useful aid for a father to compose a message from Santa Claus to his children; or even a trivia item found by a man waiting in a car for his girlfriend to finish a business meeting.


Out of the 17 stories, or rather 16 stories and a short play, seven stories are in two arcs.


One is four installments of "Our Town with Hank Fisnet" about the good-natured grumbles of the veteran journalist on various features of modern life, especially modern media -- "the only way you'll be reading my column and everything else you now hold in your hands is on one of your many digital devices -- your phone, maybe, or a watch that needs recharging every night".


The other, which with this collection opens, leaves the bounds of the earth (but returns), and ends in the one featuring an unnamed, laid-back narrator, his on-off-and-on-again girlfriend, the energetic and organised Anna, and his two friends -- Steve Wong, and Mohammad Dayax-Abdo, or 'Mdash', as he is called by them, who has emigrated from sub-Saharan Africa and has just become a naturalised citizen. And these three stories cover quite a bit of ground between them.


"Three Exhausting Weeks", introduces them but focuses more on the narrator's terrifyingly planned and filled time with Anna which "was like training to be a Navy SEAL while working full-time in Amazon fulfillment center in the Okhlahoma Panhandle during tornado season" while "Steve Wong is Perfect" is a stirring evocation of a leisure sports activity becoming a bane if it becomes a command performance.


However, the imaginative and rather surrealistic "Alan Bean Plus Four" -- seemingly inspired by Hanks' "Apollo 13" (1995) -- takes the four to new heights as they build a spaceship in the backyard and go around the moon.


Some others do seem inspired by his films too -- the graphic bloodiness of combat as seen in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), crops up in the memories of the discharged soldier in "Christmas Eve 1953", which otherwise seems an X-Mas story. Then two seem to draw from his own acting experience -- from the perspectives of a supporting actor ("A Junket in the City of Light") and a struggling starlet ("Who's Who").


And then, he takes you on a different tack together with the woman who can see glimpses of her future ("A Month of Greene Street"), an unusual take on suburban life (with a Patel family also resident) or time travel ("The Past is Important to Us").


While comparisons are bound to be drawn with his onscreen persona, Hanks here reveals an unexpected side with the dazzling technique of literary pyrotechnics. With their evocative language and characterisation, they show, in several ways, how human nature can be more strange and unfathomable than what we can think.


This book shouldn't be missed by fans of either Tom Hanks or good stories.


(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)


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