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The Fourth Hand Hardcover – July 3, 2001
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Like anything newsworthy, miracles of medicine and technology inevitably make their way out of the headlines and become the stuff of fiction. In recent years readers have been absorbed by media accounts of a transplanted hand, an experiment that ultimately ended in amputation. Medical ethicists reason that a hand, unlike a heart or a liver--essential organs conveniently housed out of sight--is in full view and one of a pair, arguably dispensable. In his 10th novel, however, John Irving undertakes to imagine just such a transplant, which involves a donor, a recipient, a surgeon, a particular Green Bay Packer fan, and the remarkable left hand that brings them together.
Television reporter Patrick Wallingford becomes a story himself when he loses his hand to a caged lion while in India covering a circus. The moment is captured live on film, and Patrick (who wears a "perpetual but dismaying smile--the look of someone who knows he's met you before but can't recall the exact occasion") is henceforth known as the lion guy. Before long, plans are made to equip Patrick with a new hand. Doctor Nicholas M. Zajac, superstar surgeon, indefatigable dog-poop scooper, runner, and part-time father, is poised to perform the operation. But the donor--or rather the widow of the donor--has a few stipulations. Doris Clausen wants to meet the one-handed reporter before the procedure, and insists on visitation rights afterward. Irving weaves these characters and a panoply of others together in a smart, funny, readable narrative. Often farcical, The Fourth Hand is ultimately something more: a tender chronicle of the redemptive power of love. --Victoria Jenkins
From Publishers Weekly
A touch of the bizarre has always enlivened Irving's novels, and here he outdoes himself in spinning a grotesque incident into a dramatic story brimming with humor, sexual shenanigans and unexpected poignancy. While reporting on a trapeze artist who fell to his death in India (shades of Irving's A Son of the Circus), handsome TV anchorman Patrick Wallingford experiences a freak accident his left hand is chewed off by a lion. Wallingford's network, a low-rent pseudo-CNN, promotes the video of the accident, making Wallingford notorious world-wide as "the lion guy." Five years after the accident, Wallingford is made whole via the second hand-transplant ever. The hand comes with a strange condition, however. It belonged to Otto Clausen, who willed it to Wallingford at wife Doris's instigation, and Doris wants visiting rights. On her first meeting with Wallingford, they have sex, Wallingford recognizing Doris's voice as one he heard in a vision in India while recovering from his accident. Doris, desperate to get pregnant, has her own agenda. Soon, in a sort of reversal of Taming of the Shrew, she is teaching the normally satyric Wallingford to domesticate his libido. Irving is not aiming for a grand statement in this novel, but something closer to the lovers-chasing-lovers structure of farce. As in all good comedy, there are some fabulous villains, chief among them Wallingford's sexually Machiavellian boss, Mary, who also wants to conceive his baby. Irving's set pieces are on that high level of American gothic comedy he has made uniquely his own the scene in which Wallingford goes to bed with a gum-chewing makeup girl is particularly irresistible. Refreshingly slim in comparison with Irving's previous works, and written with a new crispness, this fast-paced novel will do more than please Irving's numerous fans it will garner him new ones. (July 10)Forecast: An arresting cover, 300,00 first printing and Irving's perennial popularity will launch this book, a BOMC main selection, onto the charts with brio.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Amoral drifting, hilarious bumbling, scathing dissection of the news media, mysticism, the emptiness of passivity, feminism, ageism, racism, and the joy of parenting are rolled seamlessly into one rollercoaster ride of a story. And then there's the lost left hand at the center of it all. I loved it. Lots of reasons.
I wasn't prepared to like Pat Wallingford, but his character got under my skin by the end of the book. He ended up a sort of endearing bumbler, vulnerable despite his apparent "made for television" slickness. He reminded me of Inspector Dhar from "Circus". Certain of the scenes in the book (dog turd lacrosse, the tryst between Patrick and Angie) were laugh-out-loud funny. And the ending was as marginally anticlimactic as most such scenes are in life. That's a great bit of restraint, to sacrifice drama for verisimilitude -- and in an Irving ending, restraint is a rare virtue indeed.
Perhaps we've become spoiled by Irving, the way he tends to spin such a great yarn while creating such unforgettable and nuanced characters as Homer Wells and Owen Meany . . . I don't think that was what this book was *for*. Vonnegut seldom bothered to develop a character beyond a strange situation and a beguiling turn of phrase! Why should it be a sin when Irving does it?
I liked it. I'll read it again.
This book feels like some kind of contractual obligation that Irving had with his publisher.
For two-thirds of the way through, the answer seems obvious: all ways. Mr. Irving has created a surrealistically marvelous, portrayal of the news media and the people who populate it (the action in the novel is set against real-life events such as a Super Bowl game the Green Bay Packers lost and the weekend John F. Kennedy Jr. died). Patrick Wallingford, the victim, known forever after to the public as "The Lion Guy," manages to sleep with nearly every woman he becomes involved with, the widow of the man whose hand Wallingford has been given seems somewhat demented, while the hand surgeon himself, unhappily divorced, seems more obsessed with doggydo than hand surgery. In short, everyone in Wallingford's world seem at least slightly dysfunctional.
But then in the last third, it all goes wobbly and sentimental, as the action moves from the Boston-New York axis to Green Bay, and the character of the widow, Doris Clausen, becomes (just when you were imagining Drew Barrymore playing her in the movie version), well, Rene Zellweger, while Wallingford--who you've been imagining as Jim Carrey--morphs into Robin Williams. The last two chapters slog on interminably. It's "love stuff" time. And sadly, as Mr. Irving's author's note at the end indicates, this was intentional. Indeed, question 14 asks you: "Would you call `The Fourth Hand' a Love Story'? Why or why not?"
Well now! As the cable news channel satirized here would no doubt trumpet, "we report, you decide."
Notes and asides: Mr. Irving gets moon phases right (unlike so many authors): a moon two or three days from full will indeed set at about 3:00 a.m.