Tom Hanks is one of the best actors working today—he slips into the skin of a character, making him completely believable. I’m a big admirer of his acting, so when this book came out, I was curious: is he as good a writer as he is an actor?
The answer is yes. This collection of short stories includes “slice of life” stories, sci-fi and pages from a fictional small-town newspaper. The diversity gives Hanks the freedom to explore different genres, but my favourites were the ones that were simply about people.
A teenager goes out surfing with his father for the first time after years, and witnesses his infidelity; a man dates a friend with tons of energy and drive who runs him ragged (they break up but stay friends); a divorced woman picks up her young son for a weekend and gives him the time of his life; a group of friends build a rocket to the moon; a Bulgarian immigrant looks for work in New York; a man time-travels to the past and falls in love with a woman there; and a young actor goes on his first junket to promote a film. Interspersed with the stories is a column from a small-town newspaper—set like it would be in a newspaper—called Our Town Today by a man called Hank Fiset, who is so clearly drawn although you don’t know anything about him except what you pick up from his column: a reporter from the old school, a conventional small-time man.
And that’s the thing with these stories: Hanks gets the tone in each exactly right—you know what it’s like to be an immigrant trying to become part of a society that doesn’t really want you, or a young divorced mother wondering whether to date the man next door. In “Christmas Eve, 1953”, Hanks builds the character of Virgil Beuell in tiny reveals that make you constantly revaluate what you know about him. The level of detail is also impressive: in the story about the surfers, “Welcome to Mars”, for example, I would imagine that’s exactly what surfing is like:
“The wave was gorgeous, well shaped and smooth faced. And huge. A monster. Kirk kicked out of the trough and climbed up the face, just in front of the curl of white water, a compressed whisper of wind at his back. … He topped the very crest, bounced along the rim, then dug once more into the slot, retarding his speed to allow the break to catch up with him. He knelt as low as his physique allowed until water was bending over his head and he occupied a little green room of the curl.”
The story that I found the weakest was “Come Stay with Us”, written like a script. After everything that had come before, I didn’t feel I could get my teeth in it—it felt a bit disjointed.
In all these stories, there is a common thread: typewriters (which explains the title). Typewriters either take centre stage or have walk-on cameos, like Hitchcock in his films. (Hank Fiset uses one, of course.) Each chapter starts with a photograph of a typewriter. This book is a tribute to them and brought back memories: the clackity-clack of the keys, pulling back the carriage at the end of a line and the ting that followed. Made me want to go out and buy the oldest one I could find!
The back cover of the book says “With 14 photographs”. Those hoping for pictures of Hanks and his co-stars will be disappointed: the only stars here are some wonderful old typewriters!