“The Fourth Hand” by John Irving

In the novelist's latest, a studly newscaster loses a limb but gains a deeper understanding of sex.

Topics: Books,

John Irving’s novels generally feel enormous. They are long and full of sudden, wrenching tragedies that leave lasting — if not permanent — scars on their heroes. In “A Widow for One Year,” Ruth’s brothers die in a car accident, her father commits suicide and she witnesses a serial killer at work. In “Hotel New Hampshire,” the narrator’s mother and kid brother perish in a plane crash. In “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” the central character’s mother dies in a freak Little League accident.

“The Fourth Hand,” Irving’s first novel since winning the Academy Award for the screenplay of “The Cider House Rules,” is comparatively small. It is shorter than the others, certainly, but it also matters less. The instigating tragedy is comparatively minor: Beefcake newscaster Patrick Wallingford’s left hand is eaten by an Indian circus lion. Patrick wants a new hand very badly, but his life goes on as before, anyhow: reporting on disasters for a third-rate news channel, sleeping with countless women thanks to his movie-star looks — and never quite landing in the world. He is not a person of depth, and losing his hand does not make him one: “It had previously been Patrick’s experience that women were easily smitten with him, at least initially; it had also been his experience that women got over him easily, too.”

Patrick’s studliness and essential shallowness differentiate “The Fourth Hand” from Irving’s recent books — and frankly, they make it worse. Irving protagonists are usually painfully sensitive, acutely aware of every nuance of interaction. They feel things more strongly than other people around them. Life tears them up, they take action, they are consumed by worry. They also tend to be sexually inhibited or dysfunctional: The narrator of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is celibate, as is Dr. Larch of “Cider House”; the hero of “Hotel New Hampshire” is erotically obsessed with his sister; Dr. Daruwalla of “Son of the Circus” is just a prude. “The Fourth Hand,” by contrast, traces the emotional maturation of a discontented lothario — and in this sense, it’s more similar to the early novel “The Water Method Man” than to Irving’s later work.

You Might Also Like

Patrick matures mainly because he falls in love with a good woman and fathers her child — and also because he has a number of memorable erotic encounters. A make-up artist almost dies choking on her gum during orgasm while her brother yells threats into the answering machine (“I’m gonna grind up your prick in a blenda. Then I’m gonna make ya drink it!”); an aging, dying feminist treats him like a friend; a ball-busting future anchorwoman demands his top-of-the-gene-pool seed; and a 51-year-old widow, unhappily pregnant, reads E.B. White in bed and then disappears, possibly having made up her entire life story. These single nights transform Patrick into the monogamist he becomes because they’re complicated: He can’t forget them like he could an easy night of near-anonymous sex.

The woman who really makes this passive playboy into a constant lover and devoted father is the widow of the man whose appendage he receives in one of the first-ever hand transplant surgeries. Doris Clausen wants visitation rights with the hand, maybe because she’s obsessed with Patrick from TV and actually arranged to have her husband’s hand donated to him before the man died in a handgun accident — or maybe because she truly loved her husband. Patrick is smitten, possibly because part of Otto Clausen is attached to his left arm, and possibly because he’s had prescient dreams about Doris and her country house.

In the end, she loves him back, even though his body rejects her husband’s hand and he has to have it removed. When she squeezes his stump between her thighs, Patrick feels the phantom fingers of a “fourth hand” that symbolizes some kind of destiny fulfillment: “There were the two you were born with,” Doris tells him. “You lost one. Otto’s was your third. As for this one … this is the one that will never forget me. This one is mine.”

Unlike book critic Richard Eder, who starts his New York Times evisceration of “The Fourth Hand” with the premise that “it’s hard to say what [an Irving novel] might be other than a good-sized detonation that leaves a relatively shallow crater,” I tend to love Irving — for his dedication to complex, old-fashioned plotting; for his unironic, urgent characters; and for his passion for peculiar, telling details and rhythms of prose. So although there’s not much plot in “The Fourth Hand,” and characters tend to appear briefly and then never return (as I’ve hinted, Patrick himself isn’t much to write home about) — I found kernels of familiar delight here, anyhow.

The book has something of Owen Meany’s mysticism: Patrick’s premonitions (the result of an intense Indian painkiller) suggest that his fate is linked with that of his future hand donor; in some way, he already is Otto, and Otto is him. Irving also demonstrates the same urgent engagement with other people’s books we saw in “Son of the Circus” and “Cider House.” Here, it’s “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The English Patient.” Though the thematic ties to White and Ondaatje are hard to grasp (Stuart is on a journey, Patrick is on a journey?), Irving’s passion for literature is infectious. And, thank goodness, there is the expected and pitifully lovable smelly dog (“she ate sticks, shoes, rocks, paper, metal, plastic, tennis balls, children’s toys, and her own feces”); the less-delightful but still-familiar parody of feminism; and most important, the occasionally thrilling sentence of utter clarity, humor and truth. On Patrick’s anorexic surgeon: “[Dr. Zajac's] thinness was compulsive; he couldn’t be thin enough. A marathoner, a bird watcher, a seed-eater — a habit he had acquired from his observation of finches — the doctor was preternaturally drawn to birds and to people who were famous. He became a hand surgeon to the stars.”

Perhaps “The Fourth Hand” is just a quick shot at another bestseller before the glow of the Oscar wears off. Like nearly every other new comic novel on the bookstore shelves, this one is about dating and fear of commitment. Maybe the man thinks this stuff is all people want to read about nowadays; he’s just trying to deliver.

But perhaps “The Fourth Hand” is best seen as a transitional novel, moving Irving away from the Dickensian storytelling he’s been entrenched in since “The World According to Garp.” Could be he’s heading toward a looser, more modern form. I truly hope he is. Because when Irving is good, he is very, very good, and when he is bad, he gives me glimpses of something better.

Emily Jenkins is the author of "Tongue First," "Five Creatures," and a forthcoming novel: "Mister Posterior and the Genius Child."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>