Tom Hanks’s debut work of fiction, a collection of short stories, came out on October 17, 2017. It has been closely scrutinized since Hanks is one of the Elder Statesmen of the film industry. But, regardless of my admiration for Hanks’s acting acumen, I have to keep a cool head about this and say, quite objectively, that it is highly competent, in fact quite polished, often witty and generally entertaining. The settings and characters are sufficiently diverse to appeal to most readers. There are also moments when, showing his skill with plot and structure, Hanks conjures up a moment just so that the reader feels a knot in their throat. He shows skill and if he writes more, he will get even better.
Hanks is doing what many other actors have done, and what many other actors have failed at. There are a few actors who have proven themselves to be good writers (and there have been a couple of bad writers too, but let’s not mention them) – Ethan Hawke (novels), Viggo Mortensen (poetry), Carrie Fisher (novels), Steve Martin (novels), William Shatner (Sci-Fi novels), Stephen Fry (novels, memoirs), etc. The point is that writing fiction is a very different skill than acting, directing or writing screenplays. Just to master the form is hard enough, not to mention the requirements of specific genres. And then there is the relentless pressure or measuring one’s output against other authors in one’s niche.
How short stories work
Tom Hanks picked one of the more difficult genres – short stories in a collection. Short stories are pretty much potted novels – all the features squeezed into fewer words – which make them so much harder to write than novels.
The basic features that a short story has is a small number of characters (and these can recur throughout the anthology); a single event, a single setting, and a single, pervasive mood; and lastly, the usual elements of a novel, exposition, complication, rising action, crisis, climax and resolution, etc., which may or may not all be included, but follow each other in quick succession. Some short stories may skip many structural elements and quickly get to the point, without any kind of moral lesson, epiphany, or witty last line.
How does this collection stack up?
Hanks’s stories feature repeated characters, like in a small cast, and a repeated theme – typewriters. Old manual typewriters with keys and ribbons and paper and sometimes no electricity, and no internet – even in stories set in the future when time travel is possible, like The Past is Important to Us. No need to wonder if he personally loves writing on typewriters. He does! This is a collection dedicated to his love of typewriters.
In fact, in 2014, Hanks launched an Apple-specific app for ipad and iphone called Hanx Writer, which mimics “the look, feel, and sound of an old-fashioned word processor with a few new-fashioned luxuries”. The app recreates typewriter fonts and sounds, and animated carriage return, key press, and type hammers.
It has been said that the problem of writing on a computer is that one can too easily backspace, delete, cut and paste. (Don’t I know it!) Writers become lazy, and don’t plan ahead well enough. They can play around with their text, which leads to a kind of fuzzy-ness or sloppiness. Because you can only correct yourself with special effort on a typewriter, it makes you think ahead, structure and choose your words carefully. After all, like writing code, you want your typed out page to look clean and carefully thought-out.
But the gist of this love for an analog or manual experience is in one of the stories, These Are the Meditations of My Heart. A young woman buys a rubbish plastic toy typewriter with the words “these are the meditations of my heart” written romantically on it, on a whim. When she tries to get it repaired, the owner of “business machines” shop sells her a truly exceptionally engineered typewriter – but first wants to know why she wants it.
“I have loopy penmanship, like a little girl, so anything I write looks like a motivational poster in a health clinic. I’m not one who types between sips from a tumbler of booze and drags from a pack of smokes. I just want to set down what few truths I’ve come to know. […] I want my yet-to-be-conceived children to someday read the meditations of my heart. I will have personally stamped them into the fibres of page upon page, real stream-of-consciousness stuff that I will keep in a shoe box until my kids are old enough to both read and ponder the human condition. (pp. 303 – 304)
This is not the most gripping of the stories, nor the most charming. But it does illustrate the comforting permanence and physical process of typing on a typewriter, rather like painting on a canvas with a brush. Along with the theme of typewriters, from early manual models to later electric models, the stories share the theme of nostalgia – for the past, for innocence, for a different, more meaningful time.
Hanks is very clever in how he manages to put in something about typewriters in every story without sounding forced or boring. In fact, how he recreates the typos and finger-trouble of the users, from kids to reporters, is quite entertaining.
My favourite was the love story in Christmas Eve 1953. It slowly emerges that the main character is a badly scarred World War II veteran.
“A short stutter of a hop got him into bed. As he did every night, he found Del’s lips and kissed them softly, causing her to purr through her sleep. Virgil pulled the covers over him – the sheet, the two heavy blankets, and the thick quilt. He rested his head on the pillow after the long day and, at last, closed his eyes. As he did almost every night, he saw the lightning-like image of a soldier’s helmet exploding in a cloud of blood-red mist.” (p.82)
Aaaawwww. That made me sniffle.
Along with his talent for scene-setting and plausible dialogue, Hanks also included a short screenplay as one of the seventeen stories – not that he has to prove that he can write screenplays.
Altogether, I would call this charming and well done. I look forward to his next work of fiction – hopefully a novel. And perhaps created on a typewriter.
About the author
Yes, it’s that Tom Hanks, you know Forrest Gump, Castaway, Captain Phillips, Sully….need I go on? It’s just interesting that the book only mentions his writing credentials, such as that his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker – all important publications. So I reckon it was about time he got a book out.