Tom Hanks is a good writer and these are good stories.
Tom Hanks is also obsessed with typewriters. They inform the title of this collection, they pop up in many of these stories, and a typewriter takes center stage in several of them. Typewriters are the glue that binds everything together in Uncommon Type, and what a typewriter symbolizes reflects directly in many of the tales–a simple machine from a simpler time, a nostalgic callback, an evocation of memories both warm and bittersweet.
The first story actually defies all of this, though, and perhaps sets an inadvertently light tone for the remainder of the collection. “Three Exhausting Weeks” is just that–a story about friends that become more than friends, with the go-getter Anna driving the protagonist (and narrator) to exhaustion with her frenetic lifestyle over a stretch of just a few weeks. It’s breezy and funny and very unlike many of the other stories, which trade on sentimentality, a yearning for a simpler world and are often more character studies or mood pieces than fleshed-out stories.
This is not to say the more meditative stories are bad, but some of them never generate much heat, they just ramble along amiably and then end with a quick sign-off.
Another favorite, though, is the seemingly inevitable time travel story, “The Past Is Important to Us.” This seems much like a lot of the other tales, filled with lovely, warm people sharing wonderful times together, but it twists beautifully, in a way that I don’t feel is diminished even when the twist seems unavoidable.
“A Month on Greene Street” was another I enjoyed. A cynical single mother moves to a new neighborhood and thinks the worst of her likewise single next-door neighbor. For added flavor she also has occasional visions of the future. Hanks does some nice character-building here and the ending is both sweet and satisfying.
“A Month on Greene Street” also highlights both a strength and weakness of the stories. The women are complex, multilayered characters, but most of the men are much simpler, and less interesting as a result. I’m not sure if this is actually a fault of Hanks’ writing or if he just sees men as less interesting in general, but it was something that began to stand out as I read through more of the stories. One exception may be the newspaper columnist Hank Fiset, whose columns are interspersed throughout the book. His voice is clear, loud and colorful as he rambles on about the future of the paper he writes for and, of course, typewriters.
Overall, even when a story didn’t make my socks roll up and down, I was still entertained by the surprisingly sturdy wordcraft. As I mentioned at the top, Hanks is a good writer, and there are certain moods and technologies and emotions he is very fond of and obviously enjoys writing about. If you are up for some low-key character studies about mostly decent, but variably flawed people, Uncommon Type will serve you well. Jut don’t go in expecting explosions and car chases. There is bowling, though.