Writing machines can be a bit off-key
Yes, that’s Tom Hanks the actor. The dual Oscar winner. Hanks is a director, producer and screenwriter as well, for film and television. He also owns more than 250 typewriters, most of them in working order.
It’s not surprising, then, that a typewriter appears in each of the 17 short stories in Hanks’s first book, Uncommon Type. Each story is prefaced with a beautifully lit photograph of the typewriter, shot by Kevin Twomey. But the writing machine theme is more of a gimmick than a device. Most stories could lose them with no effect on the plot.
I’m more of a typewriter enthusiast than a Hanks fan. He’s a great character actor but I find his “Hollywood’s nicest guy” persona mildly irritating. The thought of 350 pages of “life is like a box of chocolates” is my idea of slow torture.
The whole book is not full of home truths but there are more than enough. A chair is “so soft it put the z in cozy”. Characters exclaim “holy cow!” and “yowza!”. There are lashings of cookies and milk, perfectly measured wedges of pie, and mothers affectionately watching from the kitchen window as boys play T-ball and girls ride pink bikes. I can’t help hearing these stories narrated by Woody from Toy Story.
Which is a problem when it comes to clumsily written sex scenes. I cringe hearing Woody narrate that a lover “reached into my pants without so much as kissing me”, then “let me reach into her pants as well […] we kissed a lot and touched each other in our wonderful places”.
Hanks is at his best writing from the perspective of children negotiating the adult world. In A Special Weekend, Kenny’s mum leaves her three children to be raised by their father and his new wife. She returns to take Kenny away to celebrate his 10th birthday.
Seeing her through Kenny’s eyes as she lights long, thin cigarettes in the red Fiat convertible borrowed from a friend and is chatted up by the gas station attendant and given the greasy eyeball by “all the men travelers” in the diner, we see a boy in awe of a mother who is a stranger to him. “She looked like a secretary in a TV show — professionally dressed, wearing heels, her trim black hair neat, her makeup showing red lips that left marks on her coffee cup.”
It is a rare moment in which Hanks writes a female character with depth. Kenny asks to drive past the old family home, which his mother does in silent dread: “unhappiness also lingered in the corners of the place, arguments sure to be echoing still, a loneliness that haunted the nights after the kids were asleep as well as the days when they were a maddening handful”. Kenny’s weekend with his mother is an unusual and bittersweet encounter.
Welcome to Mars is a coming-of-age story that reveals a pivotal moment in the relationship between Kirk Ullen and his father, Frank.
To celebrate Kirk’s 19th birthday, father and son go on an early morning surf. Their banter is brusque but affectionate. The story jumps back and forth in time, revealing changes in Kirk and Frank against the backdrop of the changing environment.
This, too, is a bittersweet account of the relationship between parent and child. But it’s also a boys-club story where women are marginalised. Kirk loves his mother and sister “as dearly as life
Tom Hanks owns more than 250 typewriters, most in working order