* Prices may differ from that shown
'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...'
This is the doorway by which we meet Patrick Wallingford, John Irving's character in the book, firth published in 2001. Those of you who do not know, Mr Irving is the best-selling American author. Born in New Hampshire in 1942, John Winslow Irving is the author of more than ten novels, among them 'The Cider House Rules,' 'The World According to Garp' and 'A Widow for one Year.' Irving is married to Janet and they have three sons. He lives in Toronto and in southern Vermont.
I have been reading his works on and off for a long time now and never cease to be enthralled by his prose, narrative and general story-telling. His work is funny and moving, putting people in sometimes bizarre situations and seeing how they go from there. The Fourth Hand is no exception... it is the story of a man who loses his left and hand and how he goes on to cope with this handicap.
The hand in question is lost in India. Wallingford is a TV journalist and him and his team are at a circus, running a story. For extra effect, he waves his hand too close to the cage of a lion and the lion proceeds to make a meal of the hand. His cameraman gets it on film and it is promptly shown all over the world on the news and Wallingford is from then onwards known as 'The Lion Guy.'
Well known surgeon Dr Zajac wants to perform America's first hand transplant, and seeing Wallingford's accident on TV gets in touch with the TV journalist to see if he is interested. Patrick is interested and is then put on a 'waiting list' until a appropriate hand comes available.
This does in the form of Otto Clausen's - hours after he has an accident - as her wife donates the hand. However, Mrs Clausen wants to have right to 'see' the hand every so often. Wallingford and Mrs Clausen meet and Patrick falls for her immediately and various things happen in that first meeting, of which I will not spoil for you.
Patrick Wallingford is a ladies man. He is divorced (his ex wife told him being married to him was life having a bout of the flu). But since the accident, he starts to re-evaluate his life and feels that he needs to change...
The Fourth Hand is a great story and well worth a look. Irving has created many compelling characters here. Wallingford's in your face, what you see is what you get; Mrs Clausen in enigmatic; Dr Zarac is quite bizarre...
I loved this novel and could not put it down. I found myself mesmerised by the characters Mr Irving created. The plot is simple, but it is the prose and the shear quality that kept me entertained through out. If I have any complaints then they would be that the ending peters out and certain characters (I wished) would have had a greater role than they got - but that is perhaps because they were all so interesting...
Also published on Ciao UK, by me as Borg
I hate to say this but, I think I'm going to have to stop reading books by John Irving. How sad does that sound? Pretty sad, huh? Well, I'm afraid that's how I feel, and while I didn't hate The Fourth Hand, my overall feeling after reading this book was one of "so, what?". Let me try to explain.
This story revolves around the character Patrick Wallingford - an unusually attractive man but only a second-rate television news reporter who never seemed to have gotten the really good stories. Then, he becomes a headline himself when a lion bites his hand off during the filming of a piece on a circus in India. After that incident, his career takes an unexpected turn, as does his overly-steamy sex-life. But when a hand surgeon offers to give him a hand transplant, his life gets turned upside-down because the donor hand has "strings attached" in more ways than one!
Sounds baffling, doesn't it? Of course it does. It's a book by John Irving, isn't it? And that means its going to *have to* be weird. If anyone saw the film "Return to Me" about a man who loses his wife, donates her heart to save someone else's life, and then later meets and falls in love with the woman who now has his departed wife's heart, will know how eerie the idea of a donor's relative being in contact with the recipient can be. Thing is, that movie made it seem less creepy than it sounds, but Irving isn't one to ever go that route, not by a long shot. No, Irving will always find the most absurd and unconventional path that one can possibly imagine. In this case, the donor's wife wanting visiting rights of the hand - and what's more, her thinking that getting pregnant by the recipient of her husband's hand will help her finally have a baby by her own departed husband. See what I'm talking about - it's a typical Irving quirky plot. Of course, there's more to the story than that, but I think you get the general picture here.
As you can also see, Irving has - once again - given us a cast of characters that are ... well ... frankly, stranger than fiction - if one can say that about a book of fiction. I found that Patrick Wallingford was actually the least bizarre of all the characters in this book - and he is supposed to be the main character. In fact, Irving has written him to be the one that you'll remember the most. My problem with this character is that while Irving has told you that Patrick is so attractive that women throw themselves at him, I couldn't picture him as being all that good looking. This is probably because Irving has painted him as a type of person who doesn't actually take charge of his life, but rather seems to be swept away by its events. For me, that's a sign of weakness, and so while I read this book, I kept getting a feeling that while the guy wasn't ugly, he really couldn't actually be someone who would turn a woman's head. I kept seeing him with a blank expression on his face that would signal - well, stupidity - for want of a better word. And I'm afraid I have never found stupid men to be in the least bit attractive. In this, I not only felt that Irving failed to help the reader experience the character of Patrick as he was built in Irving's head, but that Irving almost lied to us regarding this character's true physical attributes. One could almost say that Irving cheated me out of getting to 'see' the real Patrick Wallingford.
A more anomalus character would be Doris Clausen - the wife of Otto, whose hand is donated by Doris to Patrick for the transplant. What makes her so curious is the way she is attached (morbidly so, if not almost physically) to her dead husband's hand. That attachment is probably part of the reason why Patrick finds her appealing, or could it be that she seems to be the only woman he's ever met who isn't at all sexually interested in him - but rather in the part of him that doesn't originally belong to him! Once again Irving didn't give me enough to go on about Doris to actually allow me to envision her as a real person might appear. I'm not saying Irving doesn't describe her looks. On the contrary, he is quite clear about that. But unfortunately, like with Patrick, Doris' character doesn't seem to click with the descriptions that Irving has given, and I found myself with a very blurred image of her in my mind, throughout the book.
Next on our list is Dr. Zajac - the hand surgeon who is not only trying to help Patrick replace his hand, but also to promote himself professionally. Other reviewers of this book have found this character to be one of Irving's most comic ever. I'd have to disagree here. While he was likeable, in an off-beat and humourous way - and probably more distinctly pictural than either Patrick or Doris - I found that he seems to have been written as more of a sad person than a funny one. This could have been a good thing, but unfortunately, he wasn't the type of character that readers get a great deal of empathy for, partially because of his secondary role in the novel. This means that while he seemed sad, I didn't really feel sorry enough for him, to actually sympathize with him. The other character that takes a large-ish role here is Mary, a co-worker of Patrick's at the television station. I have to say that she was probably the character I could identify with the most - a hard-working career woman who also wants a family, even if it can't be a conventional one. Mind you, while I liked her in some ways, I also found her character to be slightly one-noted, and sometimes inane and occasionally desperate to the point of being annoying.
Of course, there are other characters here, but they're minor, and therefore even less developed than the four mentioned above. But I should mention that there was one role in this book that really had me sucked in, and that was the part of ... wait for it ... the donated hand! Sounds absurd, I know, but in truth I think I felt I could actually feel and see this hand much more vividly than any of the other 'characters' in this whole novel. In fact, my overall feeling about this hand was that Irving put more into its interaction with the rest of the story than anything else. Thing is, just how much does one want to get ... attached ... to an amputated appendage? That is, unless it's your hand that's being replaced, of course. And the really astonishing thing is, that this is where I actually started to feel some emotional connection to this story. I'm telling you, I actually was rooting for this hand to make it, to totally come to life on the end of Patrick's arm. And I read this book was long before I severed the tendons of my own finger, and lost most of its movement and much of the feelings in it. So at least, on this level, this novel did succeed to a certain extent, for me. In fact, that's why I gave this as much as three stars, when up until now, I'm sure you were all wondering why I gave it more than even one star. I mean, credit where credit is due, right? And the book is called The Fourth Hand, so perhaps there is something in the title role of this book having a truly major part to play. And I do have to say that thankfully, Irving doesn't step totally overboard by speaking to us as the hand itself.
All that said, if you've ever read any other of my book reviews, you'll have noticed that I usually find character-driven stories to be much more intriguing, and usually better written, than plot-driven stories. In this case the plot here is, in reality, not one that is all that unusual, if you boil it down to its absolute basics - that being: the trials of a broken man trying to make himself whole again (both metaphorically and literally, in this instance). While this could be made into an interesting book that might overcome flaws in the character development, unfortunately, the off-the-wall way that Irving presents this story-line puts it into the realm of almost the fantasy genre. While that might be fine for Lord of the Rings, we're talking about a literary fiction book and not a fantasy novel, and so, as usual, the plot here just isn't strong enough to pull the reader in.
But if a plot-driven story is less captivating than a character driven novel, and given what I've said about how I felt about how the characters are drawn in this book, then I must say that the overall feeling I got out of this novel was one of (and do excuse the pun, both intentional and unintentional) detachment. I felt no true emotional connection (sorry, yet again) to the 'real' characters in this book. What makes me so disappointed with this novel? If you compare my descriptions of Irving's books The Cider House Rules or A Prayer for Owen Meany, then you'll certainly understand why I'm afraid I'm going to have to give up reading John Irving's novels. In short, he has lost his ability to make me, as a reader, care for his characters. And if you can't care for the characters, then how can you care what happens to them?
But you know something? Perhaps I might have enjoyed this novel if I hadn't been expecting something that would better or at least equal Cider House or Owen Meany. I felt much the same way about A Son of the Circus, and although A Widow for One Year did have sympathetic characters, no character Irving has written since Owen Meany has ever gotten to me like that one did. Sorry, but that's how I feel. Not truly recommended, and only three stars.
Thanks for reading!
Available on Amazon.co.uk for £5.59 in paperback 384 pages (June 3, 2002) Publisher: Black Swan, ISBN: 0552771090, £11.89 in hardcover 326 pages (July 9, 2001) Publisher: Bloomsbury, ISBN: 0747554323, or used from 1 penny! Tell you what, I'll send you my copy for free and I'll even pay you the postage.
John Irving could be regarded as the Charles Dickens of the twentieth century, and so it is fitting that his most recent book, in the twenty-first century, reveals a new flavour and direction to his writing. Those of you familiar with Irving’s many large novels will immediately note the relative thinness of The Fourth Hand (in the shops now), and perhaps wonder (as I did) if this is really an Irving novel. Surely it’s missing a few hundred pages, you’ll say to yourself, surely this is volume one of a soon-to-be-completed three volume set? But no, it is a short Irving novel, about the same size as The 158 Pound Marriage. There, wham!, I just contradicted myself – yes, there have been other short Irving novels, but somehow we don’t think of his books in that way, just as one forgets that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is so much smaller than all the others: a carol amongst hymnals. The reason, I believe, is that, like Dickens, Irving’s writing has always teemed with life, has overflowed with character, episode, humour and tragedy. A master of foreshadowing, Irving has so often propelled entire halves of his novels, just as they seem to be coming to a conclusion, with a metaphorical flick of his wrist, into their other halves, releasing a carefully laid narratological trap that opens like a jack-in-a-box the rest of the story that makes up the 400 pages you haven’t read yet. But The Fourth Hand is different. It is short – there is no hinge that opens a door that reveals a whole other room – it’s all in there, nothing hidden, and yet nothing is completely revealed, and this is what makes it so good, and so different to Irving novels from yesteryear. Patrick Wallingford is a handsome, you could say beautiful, man who has always been loved by women, and been made love to by many of them. He falls into a career as a television news presenter, just as he has fallen into all aspects of h
is life. His star is on the rise, no-one doubting that he will achieve an anchor chair (the television equivalent of tenure) and continue on to the major networks. But, accident befalls him. Whilst covering a story in India about circus lions, he gets too close to the lion cage at feeding time – a paw darts out, a claw sinks in, and the jaws snap shut, taking Patrick’s hand, on live TV, off at the wrist. Patrick becomes ‘the lion guy’, now identified by his missing hand. The narrative takes us to various women in Patrick’s life and shows the effect of him losing his hand on them, the complete sympathy they all feel for him. But none are as sympathetic as Doris Clausen who immediately makes her husband Otto sign over his hand to Patrick Wallingford. Otto does this because he cannot resist Doris’ voice, the demand it places on him. There is a hand-surgeon, Dr Zajac, obsessed with dog shit, who wants to be the first to perform a successful hand transplant. When Otto dies (I won’t tell you how or why), Doris keeps a clear head and saves Otto’s hand, then rushes into a meeting with Patrick before finally agreeing to Dr Zajac attempting to transplant Otto’s hand onto Patrick. Doris and Patrick are now connected by Otto’s hand. I won’t go any further with the plot for fear of spoiling it for you. Hopefully I have managed to indicate the darkness that hovers around the characters in this novel, their motives and relationships. Darkness is not new to Irving, but an economical style is. The story is told almost telegraphically for Irving, whole sections of potential description and exposition simply omitted, the narrative leaping forwards like a bounding gazelle. But it never feels rushed, in fact, quite to the contrary, one wants to go faster. There is a tremendous sense of yearning in the book, begun in the recurring wet dream that Patrick has whilst on some funky painkillers given to him by
an Indian doctor just after his hand is bitten off by the lions. In this dream he flies over a lodge on a remote lake, then is emerging from a swim in the lake, and is pulled into the arms of a woman he loves. This powerful dream pulls the story along, and the reader, and more importantly, it propels Patrick. It is in reference to this dream, and his fervent desire for it to be realised, that Patrick finally begins to take proactive action in his own life, and start creating himself, start creating his own identity. Patrick has always been what women have told him to be, including ‘the lion guy’, but now he wants to be himself. You can read The Fourth Hand in two ways. As my brother did, laughing and giggling all the way through, delighting in its whackier aspects, and taking it essentially as being the same as any other Irving novel. Or you can read it as I did (not intentionally) as being something new from Irving, humourless, ambiguous (Irving’s self-admitted weakness has always been to explain and describe too much, leaving too little to the reader’s imagination) and dark. I think John Irving has learned a lot from transcribing his fifteen-year-spanning The Cider House Rules novel into a single-year-spanning film: his writing is more focussed than it has ever been before, and less didactic, more willing to release imagery and connectivity to the reader just as he had to leave them to the actors, director and audience when The Cider House Rules became a film. For more than any other reason, I would recommend this book, and praise it, because it stays with you after you have finished reading it. Resonance is always a mark of success for me, be it from a book, movie, party whatever. It is the things in our life and experience that stay with us, that become a part of us, that keep us thinking and feeling, that are the most important.
A man loses his hand. His search to become whole again soon makes him realise that it takes more than a new limb to find fulfilment.