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.
“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.