John Irving: The Fourth Hand (review)

Disclaimer: I read this novel in 2015 but even though I wrote the review at the time, never published it.

220px-TheFourthHand‘Good novels and films are not like the news, or what passes for the news – they are more than items. They are comprised of the whole range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book /…/’ (p. 289).

But maybe you can imitate someone’s indifference to a book. At least when you look at reviews, it seems that we are all pretty much in agreement that this is not John Irving’s best book. It is actually a really bad John Irving novel for the most part.

Inspired by a comment his wife made after watching a news story about the first hand transplant in the US, where she wondered what would happen, if the donor’s widow demands visitation rights with the hand, The Fourth Hand is about journalist Patrick Wallingford who is a disaster journalist. He is the guy who reports all the crazy weird news stories and bangs a lot of women while doing so – until one day he becomes the main story himself when he gets too close to a lion in India and looses his left hand.

This is of course broadcasted all over the news – and Patrick becomes The Lion Guy. A woman in Wisconsin also sees the footage and when her husband accidentally shoots himself, she immediately calls a hand surgeon and promises him the hand. But it comes with strings – she wants to be allowed to visit the hand after it has been transplanted to Patrick’s body. And she wants to meet Patrick to determine if he’s a nice guy. Turns out that’s not the only reason she wants to meet him. She wants her dead husband’s child and for it to make sense time-wise, she needs Patrick to donate his … talents … immediately. So she seduces him in the surgeons’s office.

So Patrick gets a new hand, the widow gets a baby – and everything should be coming up roses. Trouble is, Patrick has fallen in love with the widow and each time the widow visits with the hand, he falls more and more in love. And slowly Patrick starts to change.

‘What he failed to realize explained why he had never before been much of an experimenter; he lacked the imagination to entertain the disquieting idea that the new hand would not be entirely his.’ (p. 5)

I think this could have been a great book. Irving has some interesting perspectives on the differences between what’s shown in the news and what really happens. What matters the most, isn’t always what seems most important. And the private tragedies are not experienced like we see them on the news. Patrick starts developing a conscience, so to speak, and such can be both a advantage and a disadvantage in the TV business.

All this is well and good. But the novel wasn’t. And it’s not because of the unlikeable protagonist for most of the novel. Rather, it seems that Irving has lost faith in his readers. He explains and explains and explains everything – he even puts in lots of parentheses to explain even more. And he reminds his readers of too much of what has gone on before as well as just telling us things and foreshadowing so much – instead of just showing us and being the amazing storyteller we know he is.

It got better at around the halfway point and it does have some of the memorable Irving characters – like the divorced, dog poop hating, bird loving and extremely thin hand surgeon and his underweight son and the poop eating dog Medea. But it just never got around to the heights of The World According to GarpThe Cider House RulesA Widow for One Year, A Son of the Circus  I’ve read it twice now and both times I came up underwhelmed. If you have not read any Irving before, skip this one. If you are an Irving completist as I am, just be glad that this isn’t one of his longer novels. And that a bad Irving novel is still better than a lot of other novelists’ best efforts.

First line: Imagine a young man on his way to a less-than-thirty-second event – the loss of his left hand, long before he reached middle age.

  • Title: The Fourth Hand
  • Author: John Irving
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 316 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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