Did you know that Tom Hanks wrote stories? I didn’t although I’m not monumentally surprised at discovering a book written by him in my local thrift store. He always comes across really well when I’ve seen him interviewed: intelligent, compassionate, funny, modest. Chances were these attributes would infiltrate his writing style. It felt like it was only fair to give this book a chance. And I have to say that I’m glad I did as this is an enjoyable set of short stories.
I have to admit though that what attracted me to it was the cover. Shallow of me, I know but it’s true. It is such a beautiful shade of pale blue that it immediately drew my eye. On closer inspection, I noticed the shape of typewriter keys to hold Tom Hanks’ name and the title of the collection and once I noticed the author, I thought that I had to give it a go. I mean, it could be good?
And I really enjoy short stories. I like the roundedness of them as the form doesn’t really allow the author to ramble too much as there is a challenge in being succinct; they often have a twist that surprises, the master of this being Roald Dahl; and they provide you with the opportunity to enter and exit different worlds within the same book without it becoming confusing, as it would be in a novel that was trying to do the same thing. There is something almost voyeuristic about them, a window into a world.
There are a wide variety of tales here: some humorous and madcap; some with a science fiction bent; some quite tense; some very human.
The ones where you get a sense of character are the tales that I liked the most and I think these are where Hanks’ writing is strongest. There is one, Welcome to Mars about a son who goes surfing with his dad only to discover something about his father that jars his sense of who his dad is. There are the motel owners in Stay with Us, a loving elderly couple who have a visit from a stranger that changes the future of their motel forever. And there is the billionaire in Your Past is Important to Us who becomes obsessed with repeatedly travelling back to a particular day, June 8, 1939 New York City, in a bid to spend time with an attractive girl.
A Month on Greene Street was my favourite, a story about a divorcee, Bette Monk, who moves in to a new house in Greene Street. Bette has the gift of limited second sight which allows visions to Pop! into her head, her new abode having featured in one of them, hence, the reason for her move. But Bette does not seem kooky or strange; these pictures in her head just are and sometimes she acts upon what they show her, her house move being one of those times, and sometimes she merely acknowledges them.
It’s a nice neighbourhood and the kids settle in immediately, making friends up and down the street. But when Bette’s neighbour, Paul Legaris comes to see her with an offering of an enormous ham, she is reticent about getting to know him and purposefully avoids contact with him. Not that he is a nuisance at all, apart from using a typewriter in the back yard one time.
But, of course, Bette is bound to change her mind about him over time and it is the way that Hanks does this that makes this a tale to warm the heart. Legaris is not what he appears at first observation and when a very thin stranger with inappropriate social awareness arrives to stay next door and Bette finds Paul’s keys with a chip marked with a faded “NA”, Bette becomes more curious about the casually dressed man next door.
After having misgivings about him, Bette’s interest is piqued after Paul appears to be more mysterious than what she first construed by his appearance. Bizarrely, her prejudgment that he may not be someone that she would want in her life dissipates once she becomes curious about his potentially murky past and I like this sudden disappearance of prejudice, this complete turn around in opinion. She is not put off by the fact that she may well be living next door to a recovering drug addict; instead, she is intrigued by his story, which must be one of redemption and courage as he is living comfortably next to her today with two loving children who visit. It is her ability to be tempted by what the man is now rather than what he surely has been in his past that made this the stand-out story for me.
There is no doubt that Hanks is a skilled writer. The stories flow and give a sense of place and atmosphere – everything you would want in a good book. And he is able to write to different forms, Stay with Us being written like a screenplay and the Hank Fiset features being encapsulated in the structure of a small town paper.
One conceit that it is noticeable is that they are all linked by the mention of a typewriter. I quite liked this thread between the stories, an extra link between these disparate worlds. Sometimes it is key to the story, sometimes it is on the periphery but it is always there and I now understand from my friend, Erin that he collects typewriters. I did wonder, after learning this, if someone said to him, “I bet you you couldn’t write a whole book of short stories where each one featured a typewriter!” and he struggled to let the challenge go unanswered, having some time between films to indulge in a spot of writing.
The book is also illustrated throughout with images of classic typewriters in black and white, lending the book a vintage, timeless air. They herald the beginning of a new story and are all different. I quite liked this. When I was a kid, I always wanted a typewriter, being fascinated by the keys and the way that they clunked and I did get one bought for me although it took some thumping to get it to strike: it was a child-resistant typewriter that could take some hammering and was surrounded by moulded plastic. Not quite the machines of Mr. Hanks’ collection but, even to this day, I can see the attraction of them and there is something distinctly solid about the way that they look, especially the older ones. They demand to be pressed.
In certain stories in this book, as a reader, you dip in and out of the lives of people that Tom Hanks has created and it is, for the most part an enjoyable experience. I found the Hank Fiset newspaper excerpts a little quirky and whilst I enjoyed reading about Anna, Steve Wong, MDash and the narrator (I’m not sure you ever get to know his name – if you do, I missed it), they didn’t capture my attention in the same way that other stories in the book did.
Actually, Steve Wong is Perfect, the last story in the collection featuring said individuals, was an exception to that statement as, whilst being humorous in the style of their other featured stories, it was also quite thought provoking.
Steve Wong is a highly talented ten pin bowler but his enjoyment of bowling is marred by the fact that he is perfect at it. You would think that the plaudits of appearing on ESPN would be every man’s dream! Not for Steve Wong. The attention he attracts being an exceptional sportsman is abhorred because for him, bowling is meant to be fun, not high pressured spectator sport, just fun. I think that this says a lot about the way that sport is perceived in this day and age and not just at high level but for youngsters too. It resonated for me because I had always thought sport was meant to be enjoyable but apparently, it’s not about that at all; in our world and the world of our kids, it is about doing it exceptionally well. This may have been Tom Hanks’ intention in this story, it may not but for Steve Wong, clichéd as it may seem, it is not about the winning, it’s the taking part.
So having judged this book by its cover and brought it home based on its looks which, in other circumstances, may not always bode well, was this a pleasurable experience, my literary dalliance with Mr. Hanks? The answer is a resounding “yes”. One thing is sure: this book is good, perhaps surprisingly so and I know that some of these particular tales will stay with me beyond my reading of this book and that can be no bad thing.
It may just be an experience that I would like to repeat.