Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tom Hanks’s “Alan Bean Plus Four” was originally published in the October 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

“Alan Bean Plus Four,” by Tom Hanks, tells the story of four California enthusiasts who build a spaceship out of parts from Home Depot and depart a driveway in Oxnard to fly all the way to the moon and back. I found the story good company.

Perhaps not coincidentally, right now there are two Danes building a real spaceship in a garage in Denmark, albeit a very large garage and one of these “regular guys” is a former NASA engineer. But they pride themselves on going to the local home hardware store for their supplies, and they intend to shoot themselves into space (see here). Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are running their own private citizen’s space race, a twenty-first century America’s Cup. Pay Branson $250,000 and you can have a seat on one of his first space shots. Look at citizensinspace.org and you will see for yourself the depth of this second wave of the quest to fly into space. Mr. Hanks is therefore very topical, and I welcome the fun of it.

Hanks’s story has taken people by surprise, however, and not in a good way. That Tom Hanks should win the lottery more than once does not sit well. Mega star! Very nice guy! Either of those alone should satisfy most people. But to also have a story in The New Yorker! Among the complaints is this one: as a celebrity stunt or circulation builder, publishing this story has displaced deserving writers from their rightful place. Posh. I don’t buy that.

The New Yorker publishes at least 40 fiction writers in a single year. Their writers are male and female, young and old, serious and sarcastic, conventional and unconventional, domestic and foreign. They actively look for promising young writers. They print a wide variety of points of view. I think they’ve earned the right to have a little fun with a celebrity or two. I’m not unhappy they took a flyer, for whatever reason, on this one. Experimentation is good for the soul.

If a story works, much has to do with the match between writer and audience. As for Hanks, this is a man with an audience ready-made of millions. Almost because of the established intimacy Hanks has created with his audience, it is as if the story were one we might write for friends and share with them after dinner, except that most of us don’t have millions of friends.

People cherish the man’s can-do, boyish persona. One of his secrets is that we have the uncanny sense that this is a reflection of his true self. Thus, the story — with its enthusiasm — feels like a true voice, and voice is key to a story. Hanks has the advantage that you can almost hear him reading the words to you as you read them.

If “Alan Bean Plus Four” really works, however, it works because we Americans treasure the idea of invention, reinvention, and personal efficacy. I like the idea of someone who is a 58 year old actor deciding to write a short story about something that matters to him and then sharing it with his friends. It’s a good idea, one that’s worth pursuing.

Also, we love having a sense of the artist’s life. How does he do it? This story is not just a story. It’s also a piece of performance art, and I like the experience of it.

Beyond that, however, the story would connect with people who are partial to its enthusiasm for Yankee ingenuity and resourcefulness. There is in the story an old fashioned embrace of those two qualities — as if their combination constitutes courage or even heroism. “Alan Bean Plus Four” retells a version of the American dream, the dream of building something that works.

I identify with that yearning, except that for me the American Acropolis is not so much Cape Canaveral as a place like Longwood in Boston, where there are something like five world famous hospitals, among them my particular Parthenon, Boston Children’s. Hanks celebrates Alan Bean; I celebrate Jonas Salk. But in some ways there’s not a lot of difference. The people that populate both these places care about making things work, and they are driven by their courage and ambition. These are not bad things to embrace.

Heroism, however, is suspect these days. On the one hand, you have the 24-hour news cycle of broken Washington, broken education, and broken health care. No heroes there. On the other you have drug dealing, murderous Walter White, driven to destruction, and the bizarre development that Toys ‘R Us has been selling Walter White action heroes for holiday gift giving. Devils abound. Real heroes, not so much.

So I applaud the risky business Hanks has taken on — the possibility that heroism is possible — in a day when many people think heroism is dead, or should be dead, given how flawed the world has turned out to be.

Building the future in the garage is the American way. Nice to think that someone thinks this is still a variety of hero. I know that many people would disagree with me, that Americans being full of ourselves and calling it heroism is what is wrong with us. But take, for instance, the people at Boston Children’s that tinker with children’s hearts — and heal them. That’s the kind of unthinkable space shot that Hanks is talking about.

Hanks has a possibly immense audience. Does he have an “ideal reader”? I offer this reflection. I remember the lovely fall days when I would look out my classroom window and see the physics teacher out on the football field with his class, sending up rockets. I’d question why I’d chosen such a desk-bound discipline. If I were that physics teacher today, I’d assign “Alan Bean Plus Four,” I’d  have them report back on all the real life “citizen space travelers,” and I’d  do the rockets. It’d be a lot of fun. It’d get the blood going. You’d feel alive.

And that brings me to why I am so glad The New Yorker published this story. If Tom Hanks can make himself take a break from being a celebrity and all the fun that must be, and sit down and write about what matters to him and share it with a few friends, and hope that he might stick the landing: I like the energy that sets up. It makes me think, what is it that matters to me the way space travel matters to Tom Hanks?

One last thing: if the high school student represents one set of ideal readers for Mr. Hanks, then I’d say, if he asked me, also read a little Sherman Alexie. Alexie writes for adults and teenagers alike. He’s funny and he’s a poet, and he’s hopeful, like Mr. Hanks. All is not lost, it seems to me, given a little ingenuity and courage.

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By |2014-10-24T15:14:36+00:00October 20th, 2014|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tom Hanks|Tags: |21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Lee Monks October 20, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    The New Yorker: like a box of chocolates.

    Well, I know Hanks loves Stoner. That apart, it’s smells like a sales-spike gimmick…

  2. Archer October 20, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    I also didn’t have much interest in this, but I read it for the novelty value, and I can confirm that it’s … not good. I thought the story was pointless, juvenile and not very well-written (e.g. phrases like “smart as a whip”). In the author Q&A, Hanks is asked if he has any literary heroes. The first sentence of his answer is, “Do you mean writers?” That pretty much says it all. What was TNY thinking?

  3. Jan Wilkens October 21, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    This was disappointing. I can’t imagine what the thinking was behind this decision. Last time I was so annoyed with TNYer was when they published a huge article about Ben Stiller. Also when they started publishing Lena Dunham essays. Dumb choices.

  4. pauldepstein October 23, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    I didn’t find it so terrible. I thought it was well-written but I didn’t really get the point of it. I think it’s interesting to see celebrities from other fields try their hand at writing — that might be good for literary culture. Like everyone else, I don’t think the short story form (at least as represented in popular culture) is as strong as it was. More new ideas are needed. I find the negative commentary on this thread dispiriting (although sincere). Nothing about what the New Yorker can do better, or what celebrities who take an interest in writing could do better. Perhaps the underlying problem is that advertising in the New Yorker is less attractive, given the dominance of internet advertising.
    On the story itself, I did take the opportunity to learn a bit about Alan Bean, who I hadn’t heard of before. Do I think that the story has literary merit? No. Do I endorse the decision to publish it? Yes, because celebrity support could be valuable in engaging the public. I’d rather have a “sales gimmick” than greatly decreased sales engendering decreased readership and decreased literacy.

    Paul Epstein

  5. Lee Monks October 24, 2014 at 5:07 am

    “I think it’s interesting to see celebrities from other fields try their hand at writing — that might be good for literary culture. Like everyone else, I don’t think the short story form (at least as represented in popular culture) is as strong as it was. More new ideas are needed.”

    Firstly, how is that good for literary culture?

    How will Tom Hanks banging out a little story between movies about figure-eights on the moon effect “new ideas”? Will the short story become any “strong”er if celebs that can’t write appear in the New Yorker instead of an interesting new young voice? What does his appearance say to a kid with aspirations to be a writer about what’s happening to literary culture?

    Also: are you Tom Hanks? If so I loved you in that one with the giant piano in the toyshop. Please put the typewriter away.

  6. lotusgreen October 24, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I’ll admit, I’m relieved to read the comments here; I’d thought, “Huh?” I didn’t expect it to be good, and yet half expected to be surprised and shamed out of my cynicism. No shame here.

    What celebrities who take an interest in writing could do better: send them to the small magazines, the, uh, literary magazines, first, like everybody else. Would any of them have taken it, for the same reasons the NYer apparently had? We will never know.

    Will a flashy display of poor taste really help circulation?

  7. Trevor Berrett October 24, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Betsy’s thoughts above — I love where this conversation could go :-) .

  8. Trevor Berrett October 24, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    I will say that Betsy tempts me to read the story, though I still don’t think I will (not necessarily out of defiance but because my pile is full). I love the enthusiasm, and it reminded me of last year when Commander Hadfield was sending us pictures from space. That reminded me of my childhood, when such things were heroic. I can get behind those sentiments.

    I’m not sure I can get behind Hanks, though, or the decision to publish him in place of other writers. My ambivalence toward The New Yorker fiction has continued to grow, and is, I’m sure, no real surprise to folks around here who’ve seen me become more distant.

    I have to think about this, and surely to respond fully I’ll have to read the story. Anxious to see what others think in light of Betsy’s comments.

  9. Betsy October 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Trevor – I appreciate your reluctance and also everyone’s negative reactions. The whole thing startled me, too. I’m not so much arguing with that point of view as just intrigued by the phenomenon.

    I think, for instance, that Hanks may be lobbying for a more vigorous national commitment to space exploration. But I’ve done some local lobbying, and I don’t think this story is effective lobbying.

    I do wonder if the story is a pitch for a movie. My own taste would run more to an in depth look at the one or the three business Titans and their space race or one about the two Danes.

    I do wonder at the impulse that persuaded the editors to choose the story, regardless of the fact that I myself view it as a kind of performance art by someone whose life is part of our vocabulary.

    But about your ambivalence regarding the New Yorker, Trevor. You might flesh that out a bit. What do you think? Where else, for the cost of a single subscription, can you get new weekly fiction? (I know I’m leaving out the slog to the various public & college libraries everyone has within 30 miles.) Or – exactly how slight is the New Yorker’s roster really? Or, who is it they are not publishing? or what? Is it that you son’t see a Munro, or a Cheever, or an Updike, or a Wm Trevor in their current stable? Or that the candidates they do have are not particularly prolific?

    Or would you say that the best writing is not happening in the short story, or even in the novel – but elsewhere?

  10. Trevor Berrett October 24, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    A great request for more information, Betsy — and I promise to follow-up when I’ve had a chance to really dig into my reasons. I used to love to get the new issue and dig into the fiction, but now it kind of makes me tired. It might be personal energy, especially as I’ve been extending a lot of my energy elsewhere, but I do think there’s something more there. I’ll try to come up with an adequate response. One thing’s for sure, I do love the energy many of you have toward The New Yorker. I certainly don’t think it’s misplaced :-) .

  11. Betsy October 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    Fair enough, Trevor! As always. The appearance of this story makes the right occasion for at least some of this discussion.

  12. lotusgreen October 24, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    Oh, I just thought of something. Maybe the attempt is to skew younger? Seems a lot of the stories recently may appeal more to a crowd younger than the likes of me — ???

  13. pauldepstein October 25, 2014 at 6:45 am

    Lee Monks asks me if I’m Tom Hanks. No is the correct answer. I enjoy defending the stories and writers that no one else liked — see my comments on Okparanta’s Benji. I basically agree with Betsy but perhaps Betsy is Tom Hanks. Actually, I get it now. Lee Monks is an ex-wife or ex-significant-other of Tom Hanks, trying to get her revenge.

  14. Lee Monks October 25, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Now I DEFINITELY think you’re Tom Hanks! :-)

    I really like Hanks, I just don’t see the point of indulging a vanity project. Fair play to Hanks: I hope he got a buzz out of it.

  15. john boscarino November 1, 2014 at 12:44 am

    No problem with The New Yorker publishing a story by Mr. Hanks, but the story is not very good and the writing is no better.

  16. Betsy Pelz November 2, 2014 at 9:34 pm

    Well, John – I hear your point, but I don’t think you’ve proved it.

  17. mehbe November 5, 2014 at 3:54 am

    To me, it was so amateurish and puerile that it made me feel embarrassed for the author and the magazine. There was also something of a poorly executed shaggy-dog flavor to it that I found annoying, but I suspect that effect was completely inadvertent.

  18. Trevor Berrett November 5, 2014 at 2:15 pm

    It seems that this is part of a larger project, a collection of short stories “loosely connected to photographs of the typewriters in his personal collection to the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.”

    Nick Lezard responds in The Guardian. “Actually, I’m not delighted, because I’ve read his first published fiction, a short story called ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’, and it is painfully clear that Mr Hanks’s talents belong on the screen, or maybe the stage, but certainly not the page (I doubt the New Yorker has published a worse story in its history).”

  19. Betsy Pelz November 5, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Oh, my! A whole book! Related to a collection of typewriters!

    Trevor, that is interesting. But still, my analytical mind wonders just what combination of factors makes the story not work for people. That discussion might be worthwhile for any number of other first time writers.

    Just where is it that the story goes clunk? And why? When a story’s incompetence seizes or annoys me, I don’t just say so, I go for it, tooth and claw.

    But since I did not actually take a position on the literary merits of the story, I feel myself not responsible. What I did do was explain in some detail what interested me about it as a phenomenon.

    I do see that people who did not like either the story or its phenomenon number a great many. I wish one of them would dive in and dish it in detail armed with both a knife and a fork. Until then – it’s just assertions in common!

  20. Trevor Berrett November 5, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    I’d like to dive in, Betsy, to help out — but that means I have to read it :-) !

  21. lotusgreen November 6, 2014 at 12:48 am

    I’ll give it a go, Betsy. From the very start he proves himself a dubious narrator — why should we believe, or even care about, a word he says. Beginning with the use of language of an ill-educated 14 year old — “way less complicated,” and “gives a whoop.” And then immediately follows it up with a metaphor that only such a boy would dare recite, “the crescent moon a delicate princess fingernail….”

    Who is this guy supposed to be, and why should we care? Well, we don’t, and that’s this discussion. In hopes of it improving I read on. Now I did like MDash — the name, that is — but then quickly we’re thrown the clue that this narrator is supposed to be, somehow, Tom Hanks himself? Tom Hanks wouldn’t say things like that…. er…. well, I guess he just did.

    And from there, the story went downhill, like a failed rocket. It became incomprehensible, as though that might be amusing — wait, what? Who did you say — oh never mind. Then, at the last, it seems to become very important that you know and remember who Alan Bean was. Why was that again?

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