THE FOURTH HAND by John Irving


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A handsome TV newsman has his left hand chomped off by a hungry lion, and a former lacrosse star stays in game shape by hurling dog turds into the Charles River . . . hmmm, probably not the new Eudora Welty novel, you say?

Right you are. It’s Irving, up to his old tricks again (and are they ever getting old), aiming for the savage comic irony of his best novel (The World According to Garp, 1978) and instead recycling the arbitrary whimsy that produced his worst (The Hotel New Hampshire, 1981). This one begins when Patrick Warrington, who’s covering the Great Ganesh Circus in India for a thrills-oriented media operation reviled throughout the industry as “the calamity channel,” stands too close to the lions’ cage, and suffers the mutilation that will elicit gasps around the world from the many women who have loved (and will love) him. Among the latter is Doris Clausen of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who impulsively offers a donor hand from her husband Otto (inconveniently, still alive). Otto complies by killing himself (whether he’s despairing over a Packers’ loss is unclear), and all seems well—though Doris is demanding “visitation rights” with Otto’s hand. Eminent Boston hand surgeon Nicholas Zajac (the former lacrosse player, whose own problems with women are threaded intermittently throughout the narrative) attaches Otto’s mitt, whose imperfect functioning is prelude to the experiences of fatherhood and real love (as opposed to lots and lots of gratuitous sex), which finally make a man of Patrick, despite his disability. Irving presumably means all this to be a Dickensian fable of renunciation and healing, but it’s a self-indulgent mishmash of let’s-see-what-weird-things-I-can-come-up-with-next plotting and complacent commentary laid on by a very heavy, omniscient authorial, uh, hand.

Recently Irving has been alternating his usual doorstoppers with slighter books like the miscellany Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996) and the memoir My Movie Business (1999). Don’t be fooled by The Fourth Hand. He’s still between novels.

Pub Date: July 10th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-50627-6
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2001


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