“’Normal is a setting on a washing machine.’”
-Tom Hanks (from Uncommon Type)
To a writer a typewriter is more than just a tool; it is a partner, a collaborator, a companion, and an extension of the person using it, not unlike a guitar is to a musician or a bat is to a baseball player. A computer just does not have the same warmth or feeling; one writes at home, saves it to a stick, then goes and works on a laptop at a coffee shop or at a different computer at an office or library and it feels like cheating on a spouse. One cannot move words around on a typewriter; the pressure is on to get it correct the first time, so every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark, has to be thought out in advance. Typewriters were built to last and not be updated every 3 or 4 years when the new models came out. I can remember my first long-term love affair: It was in 1990, and I had just been accepted into Concordia. (Back then going to University was a big deal. I was the first in my immediate family to graduate from such an institution, and of my 5 closest high school friends, I remain the only one with a degree.) I did all my CEGEP work by hand on lined loose-leaf paper, but now I was in the big time and I couldn’t get away with that anymore. (It was just on the leading edge of the home computer revolution, and most word processors were way out of my price range.) The typewriter in question was a cobalt-blue Smith Corona that I purchased at the Consumer’s Distributing in Plaza Côte-des-Neiges. It cost less than $75, was fairly large and heavy (when compared to a modern laptop) and came with a built-in spell checker and handle for portability. And for the next 8 years until I finally bought a used PC from a friend’s husband, it was a fixture on my desk. That device was the conduit for all my papers, assignments, and after that all my résumés, screenplays (unproduced) and my first novel (unpublished).
Renowned actor, writer, producer and director Tom Hanks is a long-time collector of antique typewriters, both manual and electric, which serve as the inspiration for his new book, Uncommon Type.
Hanks’ first literary effort is a collection of short stories of varying genres, including science fiction and humour, and a recurring column from a fictional small-town newspaper journalist named Hank Fiset, all linked together by one or another old writing machine from the author’s massive accumulation (the book includes wonderful illustrations of the typewriters in question).
Hank’s writing style is smooth, unchallenging, and a little too heavy on details; his stories read more like movie scripts (in fact one piece, Stay With Us, is an actual shooting script), complete with endless product placement (I have never read fiction that rattled off so many brand names in my life), than prose. Some of the aforementioned details, like in Who’s Who? where the year the story takes place (1978) is mentioned twice in the first 2 paragraphs, get at times a little frustrating and distracting.
The stories also have an aww-shucks, hokey, Boy Scout, all-American feel to them that are not surprising given Hanks’ nice-guy image, and after a while I found myself looking for some grit just to break the monotony, but the nearest thing to that in Uncommon Type is a time travel yarn called The Past is important to Us, which I think in the right hands would make a decent movie.
Beside typewriters there is a recurring theme of all things Greek, likely influenced by his wife, actress Rita Wilson (as Nurse Lacey on M*A*S*H* she turned down a date with Hawkeye to go out with Clayton Kibbie in the episode Blood & Guts), who is of Greek heritage (with the name “Wilson”? How the hell does that happen?).
Stephen King once famously quipped that he was the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” If that is the case, then Tom Hanks is a Domino’s Pizza.
Which leads to the $64,000 question: Would this book have been published if the author was not such an iconic Hollywood actor?
But did I enjoy Uncommon Type?
Y’know what? I must say for the most part and despite its faults, somehow yes, I did anyway. (I guess Hanks’ hokeyness must have rubbed off on me.) It was a charming, harmless and fun read.