Tom Hanks And Matthew Weiner Cross Over Into The World Of Fiction

Oct 30, 2017
Originally published on October 30, 2017 11:43 am

So, is it any good?

That's the question everybody asks whenever a celebrity writes a work of fiction. No one expects much from debut novels written by rhinestone-in-the-rough wordsmiths like Fabio or Snooki from Jersey Shore, but the work of other Hollywood stars like James Franco, Lauren Graham and Steve Martin has garnered some serious attention.

Which brings us to Tom Hanks' debut collection of short stories called Uncommon Type. So, is it any good?

Yeah, I think so. As you'd expect, Hanks isn't interested in experimenting with the short story form. After all, he's a guy who's still obsessed with typewriters; in fact, every one of the 17 stories in this collection features a typewriter.

As often happens in large short story collections, a few of these tales should have been "whited out" — and if you don't know what that term means, you're not in the target age range to enjoy most of the remaining stories, a few of which are really wonderful.

Hanks' strength as a writer is pretty much the same as his strength as an actor: He totally embraces his own earnestness. His language and references are unaffected, sometimes even Forrest Gump goofy: In a story called "A Month on Greene Street," his main character, a newly divorced mom, utters expressions like "Yowza" and "Howdy do?" and in another called "Three Exhausting Weeks," about a frantic love affair, our hero, a millennial, drinks percolated coffee.

Most of Hanks's stories end optimistically, which contributes to their gentle appeal, but the one I'm haunted by is called, "Christmas Eve 1953." It doesn't so much celebrate optimism as it does that other old-fashioned virtue: sucking it up. It's about the guys who were lucky enough to come home from World War II and "the things they carried" into their middle-aged lives.

A father of three, named Virgil Beuell, is driving home on Christmas Eve and "curs[ing]the folks at Plymouth, who were unable to build a car with a heater worth a damn." By story's end, we understand why Virgil, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, has lavished money he and his family don't have on an oversized furnace and "a beast of a hot-water heater." We also understand that cold has permanently settled in Virgil's bones, even as he acknowledges he's one of the lucky ones.

In all, I liked Hanks' collection a lot — which sounds as if I'm damning it with faint praise. I'm not. "Like" is a Hanks kind of word: simple and earnest, which are two words you would never use in talking about Matthew Weiner's work.

Weiner, who created Mad Men and wrote and directed many of its episodes, has just written a novella called, Heather, The Totality. It's about two upper-class New Yorkers named Mark and Karen Breakstone and their 14-year-old daughter, Heather.

Heather is graced with an unusual degree of empathy: As a little kid, she once caused a woman — a stranger — to burst into tears on the subway by remarking to her: "Everybody riding on the train acts like they're alone, but they're not."

Now Heather's empathy — and teenage beauty — have attracted more sinister attention. Here's the moment when Mark spots the danger lurking near his daughter in the form of a construction worker outside his Upper East Side apartment house:

"... as he was about to cross the street to his apartment ... he froze. Heather was staring at her phone and one of the workers was staring at her. The stare was coming from a short guy in a work apron and was so carnal and intense that Mark charged across the street and pushed Heather away as if he were stepping between her and an oncoming car."

Given that Mad Men was routinely referred to as "a televised epic novel," you'd expect that Weiner's foray into literary fiction would be pretty good — and it is. There's a noir-ish over-the-top quality to this story — especially at the end — that's a little reminiscent of James M. Cain's signature tone.

But, as he did throughout Mad Men, Weiner also deftly exposes the weirdness of mundane life changes: the transformation of a chatty toddler into a shut-down adolescent; the sudden shifting of alliances among closed groups, whether they be ad agencies or nuclear families.

Like Hanks' stories, Heather, The Totality doesn't break any new ground stylistically; instead, it chillingly reminds us of how unstable the ground is that we take for granted beneath our feet.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Famous names sell books. But they also stir up skepticism, especially when the famous name is a Hollywood star. So let's see what our book critic Maureen Corrigan has to say about two new books, one by Tom Hanks and the other by the creator of the series "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: So is it any good? That's the question everybody asks whenever a celebrity writes a work of fiction. No one expects much from debut novels written by rhinestone-in-the-rough wordsmiths like Fabio or Snooki from the "Jersey Shore." But the work of other Hollywood stars like James Franco, Lauren Graham and Steve Martin has garnered some serious attention, which brings us to Tom Hanks' debut collection of short stories called "Uncommon Type."

So is it any good? Yeah, I think so. As you'd expect, Hanks isn't interested in experimenting with the short story form. After all, he's a guy who's still obsessed with typewriters. In fact, every one of the 17 stories in this collection features a typewriter. As often happens in large short story collections, a few of these tales should've been whited-out. And if you don't know what that term means, you're not in the target age range to enjoy most of the remaining stories, a few of which are really wonderful.

Hanks' strength as a writer is pretty much the same as his strength as an actor. He totally embraces his own earnestness. His language and references are unaffected, sometimes even Forrest-Gump-goofy. In a story called "A Month On Greene Street," his main character, a newly divorced mom, utters expressions like yowza (ph) and howdy-do (ph). And in another, called "Three Exhausting Weeks," about a frantic love affair, our hero, a millennial, drinks percolated coffee.

Most of Hanks' stories end optimistically, which contributes to their gentle appeal. But the one I'm haunted by is called "Christmas Eve 1953." It doesn't so much celebrate optimism as it does that other old-fashioned virtue, sucking it up. It's about the guys who were lucky enough to come home from World War II and the things they carried into their middle-aged lives.

A father of three named Virgil Beuell is driving home on Christmas Eve and cursing the folks at Plymouth who were unable to build a car with a heater worth a damn. By story's end, we understand why Virgil, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, has lavished money he and his family don't have on an oversized furnace and a beast of a hot water heater. We also understand that cold has permanently settled in Virgil's bones, even as he acknowledges he's one of the lucky ones.

In all, I liked Hanks' collection a lot, which sounds as if I'm damning it with faint praise. I'm not. Like is a Hanks kind of word, simple and earnest, which are two words you would never use in talking about Matthew Weiner's work. Weiner, who created "Mad Men," and wrote and directed many of its episodes, has just written a novella called "Heather, The Totality." It's about two upper-class New Yorkers named Mark and Karen Breakstone and their 14-year-old daughter, Heather. Heather is graced with an unusual degree of empathy.

As a little kid, she once caused a woman, a stranger, to burst into tears on the subway by remarking to her, everybody riding on the train acts like they're alone, but they're not. Now Heather's empathy and teenaged beauty have attracted more sinister attention. Here's the moment when Mark spots the danger lurking near his daughter in the form of a construction worker outside his Upper East Side apartment house.

As he was about to cross the street to his apartment, he froze. Heather was staring at her phone, and one of the workers was staring at her. The stare was coming from a short guy in a work apron, and was so carnal and intense that Mark charged across the street and pushed Heather away as if he were stepping between her and an oncoming car.

Given that "Mad Men" was routinely referred to as a televised epic novel, you'd expect that Weiner's foray into literary fiction would be pretty good, and it is. There's a noirish, over-the-top quality to this story, especially at the end, that's a little reminiscent of James M. Cain's signature tone. But as he did throughout "Mad Men," Weiner also deftly exposes the weirdness of mundane life changes - the transformation of a chatty toddler into a shut-down adolescent, the sudden shifting of allegiances among closed groups, whether they be ad agencies or nuclear families.

Like Hanks' stories, "Heather, The Totality" doesn't break any new ground stylistically. Instead, it chillingly reminds us of how unstable the ground is that we take for granted beneath our feet.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Uncommon Type" by Tom Hanks and "Heather, The Totality" by Matthew Weiner. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jonathan Groff. He stars in the new Netflix series "Mindhunter." He played King George in Hamilton, was the voice of the iceman and his reindeer in the animated film "Frozen," had a recurring role in "Glee," starred in the musical "Spring Awakening" and starred in the recent HBO series "Looking" about a group of gay friends. There's lots to talk about and listen to. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.