Tom Hanks is a genius at playing American Everymen. Whether he's winning our hearts as Joe Banks in Joe vs. the Volcano, Forrest Gump, or Woody in Toy Story, or making corporate vultures like Joe Fox in You've Got Mail relatable, his defining characteristic is a muscular, ordinary decency so persuasive it overwrites his characters' other qualities. He even — as he gripes himself in this fascinating New York Times interview — makes executioners and murderers seem sympathetic.
This is Hanks' superpower. He has others: In interviews, he's self-deprecating and charming. He seems undefined by his fame. He's blessed with a noble and compelling upper lip. And if his aw-shucks distaste for notoriety elevated his depiction of Sully (an Embattled Ordinary Man grappling with the trappings of heroism), his comedic instincts are so good that his SNL character David S. Pumpkins became a bizarre and perfect instant classic.
It pains me, then, to say that Tom Hanks, who is truly good at all those things, has not written a particularly good book.
What makes Uncommon Type, his debut volume of 17 short stories, so stilted and odd is how hard so many of these stories strain to feature Everymen like the ones he's played. "I am one of those lazy-butt loners who can poke my way through a day and never feel a second has been wasted," one says. These pages are filled with almost endearingly ordinary descriptions of ordinary things that do little but marvel at their ordinariness: "Breakfast was savory perfection, as always," "the coffeepot was eight cups deep (an old Mr. Coffee)," "the dribbling water a weak stream that was alternately tepid and then as hot as the surface of the planet Mercury." Characters' reactions are both leaden and over-explained: "Frank Ullen had been surprised at the request. His son had not joined him in the water for some time." And the setups are, well, stale: A veteran reflects on his time at war. A beleaguered actress named Sue goes to New York with little but a "five-buck umbrella" to her name.
The problem seems obvious: Tom Hanks isn't actually an Everyman. He's a superstar. He's been an extremely famous, wealthy, powerful celebrity for most of his adult life. He's seen into Hollywood's black belly, kissed Meg Ryan, sailed with Oprah and the Obamas, and known thousands of luxuries most of us never will. Of course his depictions of ordinary life are impoverished. Of course his descriptions vacillate between schmaltzy sentimentalism ("she kissed back, both of them feeling that such a kiss was one of the reasons they were still married") and not-quite-right evocations of middle-class ennui. Here is a son thinking about his father, and I ask you to imagine any son thinking of his father in these terms:
The hassles of the job and those flare-ups at home were left onshore — all those complicated family moments that came and went, as unpredictable as brushfires. Kirk loved his mom and his sisters as dearly as life itself, but the fact that they were such squeaky wheels on such bumpy roads was something he had accepted long, long ago. His dad, the father of the pride, had to work two full-time jobs — provider and peacemaker — with never a day off. It was no wonder the man took to surfing as both his physical tonic and his mental astral-plane therapy.
More startling still is the dialogue, which reads as if an alien read a little Americana and thought he'd try his hand:
"My car remote must have fallen off without me noticing, one more event to which I am oblivious. I had no clue where I'd lost them, so thanks." "Credit Greene Street and its good neighbor policy," Bette said.
Here's another slice of life:
"Good luck there in Chesterton," says a man named Phil. "I hear they get benefits galore at that windshield factory." "Thank you," says Jesus. "I will come back to see you many times."
But here's the twist: In discussing these passages with friends, we all agreed on one thing: As tin-eared as some of these lines seem, Joe Fox — Tom Hanks' character in You've Got Mail, the one who longed to send Meg Ryan "a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils" — would convincingly deliver them. It's a fascinating exercise: Run the words through Hanks' voice, and much of this collection could suddenly work. His acting might save his prose. (Maybe it'll be a good audiobook?)
There's another twist: By the time I'd decided that this was less a short story collection than an occasion for Tom Hanks to cosplay as the normal guy he'll never be again, I got to his screenplay about a rich man doing exactly that. The story features a woman — Ms. Mercury — whose job it is to handle every detail of the life of an extremely wealthy man named F.X.R. At one point, he asks her to help him pass as normal. "Let's keep a low profile to blend in with the locals. The economy bypassed that part of the nation," he tells her. "Get me whatever car $800 can purchase." He dresses up in what he thinks "the common people wear — a fruity looking western shirt with too much piping tucked into an old pair of Jordache designer jeans, a belt with a huge Marlboro cigarettes belt buckle, and flame-red cowboy boots." He says things like "as you can see, we happen to be weary travelers who have been on the road too long."
The executive's absurd disguise is quickly detected — his normal-guy schtick convinces no one. Is Hanks good-naturedly nodding at his own disguise? Maybe he thought including a story that does exactly what the collection as a whole seems to attempt would exonerate it? If so, it's a charmingly playful touch. I don't think it saves the whole: The stories drag, the characters are pleasant but flat, and the conceit of the typewriters as a throughline feels more dutiful and cute than inspired.
The exceptions coincide with Hanks' idiosyncratic experience and expertise. Take the screenplay: It pops more than the stories do because he clearly understands the form. One story, "A Junket in the City of Light," follows a young actor on his first press tour with a famous actress and captures some of the attendant lunacy with humor and precision. It sputters out into a pleasant anticlimax, as do many of Hanks' stories (which, unlike most short stories, end rather happily). And "Alan Bean Plus Four," easily the most creative premise, makes whimsical use of everything Hanks seems to have learned while filming Apollo 13, including the word equigravisphere, which appears several times.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Uncommon Type is how egregiously it's misnamed. Hanks' book is a fervent ode to common things. "We had dinner in — vegetarian lasagna with vegetables in the side — and watched a movie on Netflix about smart women with idiot boyfriends," one character says, nesting into that bland description of a banal evening, a level kind of longing only a star could feel.