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The Fourth Hand


The Fourth Hand

As is his wont, John Irving borrows bits and pieces from his previous novels for his latest book, THE FOURTH HAND. For example, the main character has a cryptic catch–phrase he delivers each evening to a large audience (see THE CIDER HOUSE RULES); a circus in India plays a primary role in advancing the plot (see A SON OF THE CIRCUS); photographs are poignant reminders of all the things the lead characters have lost or given up in their lives (see A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR); and an affair between a college instructor and one of her students elucidates the character of both (see THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP). However, THE FOURTH HAND most resembles THE WATER–METHOD MAN, Irving's second book, published in 1972 --- six years prior to his break–out book, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP.

For readers unfamiliar with Irving's pre–GARP work, THE FOURTH HAND may seem out of keeping with the rest of his novels despite the small familiar details mentioned above. THE FOURTH HAND lacks the complexity of many of his books, taking only token looks at most of the minor characters rather than the extended exploration such characters have merited in books like THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP or THE CIDER HOUSE RULES. In this relatively slim volume, Irving limited himself to a single extended side narrative --- that of the hand surgeon who performs the protagonist's hand transplant --- and his story, while well–told, does little to reveal the story of the major characters.

Readers of THE WATER–METHOD MAN, however, will recognize the early Irving in this latest novel. THE FOURTH HAND's Patrick Wallingford and THE WATER–METHOD MAN's Bogus Trumper have much in common. Both suffer from physical anomalies obliquely referred to in their respective book's title; each spends a great deal of time in front of a camera, Wallingford because he is a television journalist, Trumper because one of his best friends is a documentary film maker making a film about Trumper's life; and neither man, try as he might, can refuse a woman anything --- especially anything involving sex. Indeed, both novels are to some degree about the protagonist's efforts to overcome this weakness and settle in for the long haul with one woman. And while both Wallingford and Trumper would be happy having sex for the sake of sex, they both become involved with women who insist on having babies.

THE FOURTH HAND, written nearly 30 years and many novels after THE WATER–METHOD MAN, may be a more finely crafted novel. As always, Irving draws the reader into the lives of his characters --- lives that manage to seem simultaneously both outrageously quirky and wholly familiar. The book lacks some of THE WATER–METHOD MAN's energy, however. Because it also lacks the densely woven plot of Irving's more famous novels, it may be something of a disappointment to many readers who have come to expect a different narrative style from the author. Even so, this odd love story reminds us that Irving is a master of illuminating our common emotions by casting them into uncommon settings.

Reviewed by Rob Cline on January 22, 2011

The Fourth Hand
by John Irving

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 316 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345449347
  • ISBN-13: 9780345449344