The Fourth Hand

by John Irving

Published by Random House

316 pages, 2001

Buy it online





No Hand For Irving

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


There are things I look forward to. Seeing my kids at the end of the day. The new CD by a favorite singer. A new book by an admired author. The new John Irving novel, The Fourth Hand, fell neatly into this latter category. I was reading his last novel, A Widow For One Year, when I became aware of the new one -- and I was loving it. Widow ranks among, I think, Irving's best books, the best of which is The World According To Garp. Conversely, The Fourth Hand belongs on the opposite end of the Irving spectrum.

Where Garp and Widow present an almost endless number of fascinating characters whom we follow through many years and many (mis)adventures, The Fourth Hand limits itself to a small group of people, none of whom is particularly interesting.

The premise is a compelling one. Patrick Wallingford, a supremely handsome 24-hour news reporter, is in India, doing a piece about a circus. At one point, a lion grabs his microphone and swallows it down -- while Patrick's hand is holding it. This leaves Patrick flawed in a way that's pretty tough to hide -- and presents Irving with ample opportunities to show us just how tough a hide Patrick really has.

Because Patrick is a celebrity (inasmuch as the general public knows who he is), news of the accident makes him even more of one. And so a woman in Green Bay has her husband -- a man with the somehow unlikely name of Otto -- agree that if anything should happen to him, she would have his permission to take his hand and donate it to the needy Patrick. As luck would have it, something does happen to poor Otto: Green Bay loses the Super Bowl, and Otto shoots himself.

The deal struck is this: Patrick can have Otto's hand, but his wife, Doris, wants visiting rights. She wants to see the hand from time to time. Let me be clear: She wants to visit her dead husband's hand, which is now attached to some other guy.

This is the point where I sort of the left the book behind. Now, I'm fairly willing to get on a ride and go with it. But this was a turn I had a hard time going anywhere with. But even so, I kept reading. Kept hoping.

Maybe if Irving had launched these people on some kind of odd, possibly deviant sexual adventure -- such as Doris not wanting to simply visit the hand, but to have it do certain things to her (with Patrick along, as it were, for the ride). That would have been disturbing, could have been funny, would have been so much more, well, Irving-like than what he sketches.

Irving introduces an Indian doctor -- a hand transplant specialist -- who seems poised to become a major character. But that tangent is tossed aside in favor of a terribly minor, not-very-illuminating subplot in which we learn that the doctor marries his kids' nanny, who turns out to be a bitch.

We watch helplessly as Patrick becomes embroiled in nasty office politics. Will the fact that he's slept with the woman who's become his boss be a bad thing or a good thing? We don't care all that much. Will a woman he sleeps with -- a woman who reads him Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little -- become an important character, and if she does, will we care about her? She doesn't and we don't.

Are we bothered by the fact that Patrick has been near-raped by Doris, who becomes pregnant by Patrick? Will we care that Patrick feels paternally responsible for this child, also named Otto and that he wants to read the child Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little? Does this hold some relevance to the woman who read those books to Patrick? Will Patrick ever actually engage us or thrill us or even repel us? No. No. No. And no.

The trouble with The Fourth Hand is this: A novel is a structure. By that I mean, decisions must be made along the way. And ultimately, each one of these decisions will be either right or wrong. Somehow, John Irving -- truly one of the greats -- has managed to make each decision wrong. It's almost -- almost -- as if he actually meant to do it, possibly to see what would happen. If this is the case, what happens is a very loud and crushing "not much."

In the weeks before I read The Fourth Hand, I expected that I would want to give the author a hand. How disappointing that what I most want to give his book is the finger. | August 2001


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.