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

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:

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 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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