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.
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.