Book review: Uncommon Type - Some Stories, by Tom Hanks

Detail from the cover of Uncommon Type
Detail from the cover of Uncommon Type
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With the ethics of Hollywood film-making being seriously questioned in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the golden era of tinsel town seems a very long time ago.

But grotesque behaviour by movie moguls - as anyone who has read Kenneth Anger’s classic Hollywood Babylon can attest – is nothing new.

No one is predicting the downfall of Hollywood, however, and many movie icons retain the faith of the public. Not every actor or director carries with them the whiff of scandal. Tom Hanks – as his many, many fans will testify – is one of the good guys.

He has never worked with Weinstein and has publicly dismissed the shamed producer’s defence that he was “brought up in a different era”. But then you’d expect nothing less from the 61-year-old, a socially liberal Democratic Party donor who has long championed same-sex marriage and the need to protect the environment.

Unusually for Hollywood royalty – he is one of only two people to win the Best Actor Oscar in consecutive years – Hanks is viewed as an approachable personality. That’s no mean feat. It also explains why he can enter the world of fiction without his efforts being dismissed as vanity projects. Hanks’ chosen medium is the short story. Uncommon Type is his first published collection, but committed fans will already have read his efforts in such august publications as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

He is by no means the first movie star to fancy himself as a man of letters. Richard Burton spent years crafting his diaries and bemoaning the lack of artistry in big budget films, the implication being that the written word was the real test of the creative.

Hanks, while being far more positive in his general outlook, shares some of Burton’s milder disdain for showbusiness. One of the most satisfying stories in Uncommon Type offers an insight into the gruelling promotional duties actors are expected to cheerfully undertake each time another blockbuster sequel is churned out.

A young, slightly gormless co-star is sent to press the flesh and charm the media in Paris. The full itinerary of his daily commitments is reproduced in mind-numbing detail. “10.35-11.05 Print Media Round Table #5 (approx 16 outlets. List available)”. The same three questions are asked at every event. Does this tedium justify the end product? Hanks’ title for the story says it all: “A Junket in the City of Light”.

Those hoping for further insights into life in the Hollywood bubble are likely to be disappointed, however. We lean more about Hanks’ well-known interests in vintage typewriters, the Second World War and space exploration than we do his opinions of his co-stars.

At times, some of the stories veer too far into the world of whimsy. “Christmas Eve 1953” is a full-throated tribute to the 1950s, an era many older Americans remain in thrall to. A small businessman – wounded in the war a decade before – and his young family enjoy the fruits of the post-war boom, while other veterans struggle to come to terms with what they’ve endured. The problem is we’ve heard it all before, with Hanks approaching the subject in a way many others have done before him.

He is on a much firmer footing when dealing with the here and now – opening story “Three Exhausting Weeks” is a humorous take on disciples of extreme fitness and wellbeing regimes – a type not in short supply in California, and in the movie business in particular.

Uncommon Type is a collection that will please Hanks’ legions of well-wishers. It proves he does possess some literary talent, but a sharper choice of subject matter and a more rigorous editor could prove invaluable when the inevitable follow-up appears.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories, by Tom Hanks, William Heinemann, 416pp, £16.99