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Pounding on the keys

Sheila Kumar, Nov 27 2017, 12:23 IST
In Who's Who?, the heroine has a struggle with her umbrella, which is captured rather neatly.

In Who's Who?, the heroine has a struggle with her umbrella, which is captured rather neatly.

So, here it is, Tom Hanks's literary debut. But then Hanks has had stints with the written word before, having written screenplays for the HBO docudrama From the Earth to the Moon. He is an intelligent and articulate man as has been clear to those who have followed his career trajectory and heard him speak.

So let's treat this as a debut collection by a writer named Thomas (Jeffrey) Hanks. There are 17 short stories in the book, and one set of characters stroll into a couple of other stories. Then there's a cranky journalist named Hank Fiset whose reports feature at least four times in the book.

Before you ask, these are slice-of-life stories, slice of American-life stories, almost insularly so. There are people like the Patels who pass through in a tale, but since it is an Irrfan Patel married to a Priyanka, you wonder if Hanks is making a passing reference to an interfaith marriage or just being lazy€ he's a friend of Irrfan Khan, remember? And he's probably met our Quantico girl Priyanka Chopra.

The tone is direct, the style is gently humorous; the stories do not wrap themselves in any kind of clever wordplay, though there is a palpable vein of irony that informs all the stories.

Varied characters inhabit the book, but all through, it's Hanks's voice we hear, and that is a serious shortcoming. Oh, and 'footwear' appears as 'footware' in one story. I searched hard for any hint of irony in there and didn't find it, so I guess it's just a typo.

What do the stories delve into, deal with, reveal? Well, there's vigorous Anna who takes the smitten narrator into the maws of a hectic three-week affair. Anna is always on the lookout for things to do, the narrator is a laid-back kind of guy, and the twain, of course, can never meet, or at least, not permanently.

But as breakups go, this one is the most amicable of them all. There's a WW vet dealing with his less-than-savoury memories of a Christmas Eve back on the battlefield even as he sits surrounded by his loving family many years later, on another Christmas Eve.

There's this mildly funny account of a leading man in a female-dominated franchise who is shown his place very quickly as the film does a promotional tour of Paris.

There's a young boy living his own idyllic summer€ only until he stumbles upon his father's extramarital affair. There's this youngish divorcee who moves house with her kids and tries to look at her new locality with an unjaundiced eye.

Alan Bean Plus Four is my pick of this lot. It's Anna and company from the first story, all set to travel to the moon and back, in a homemade craft named Alan Bean. Who Alan Bean is and why they have named their spaceship after him is quite the quirkiest quirk in this book.

Elsewhere, people struggle to make their mark in life, live in a strange city, to find a job as an immigrant, look to buy typewriters that catch their fancy, time-travel, and fall in love.

And every few stories, a clunky ancient typewriter makes its appearance. It is a contrivance of course, but segues in well with the flow of the stories, and after a while, the reader starts to look out for the typewriter. Why the typewriter motif? Well, Hanks is a collector of manual typewriters, uses them, and in 2014, released 'Hanx Writer', an iOS app meant to emulate the experience of using a typewriter.

In Who's Who?, the heroine has a struggle with her umbrella, which is captured rather neatly.

"Two blocks from the Eighty-Sixth Street subway station, the rain started. Sue halted, reached for her umbrella, pushed the button on the telescoping handle, but the handle did not telescope. She pulled on the fabric of the thing, forcing it open, but in doing so, bent some of the spokes. When she tried to slide the plastic knob up the shaft, the umbrella bent like the leg of a card table. She shook the umbrella and tried forcing the knob, but only half of the cover deployed. With the rain getting heavy, she re-cocked and again tried to get the umbrella open, but it inverted into a scoop and more of the spokes disconnected like severed ribs. Giving up, she tried to jam the worthless skeleton into an overflowing trash bin at Broadway and Eighty-Eighth, but the umbrella seemed to fight back, refusing to go in with the other garbage. It took her four tries before it stayed put."

Now I ask you, which Indian wouldn't identify with Sue's struggle?!

The book is mildly entertaining, but Tom Hanks had better keep his day job.

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