While reporting a story from India, a New York television journalist has his left hand eaten by a lion; millions of TV viewers witness the accident. In Boston, a renowned hand surgeon awaits the opportunity to perform the nation’s first hand transplant; meanwhile, in the distracting aftermath of an acrimonious divorce, the surgeon is seduced by his housekeeper. A married woman in Wisconsin wants to give the one-handed reporter her husband’s left hand– that is, after her husband dies. But the husband is alive, relatively young, and healthy.
This is how John Irving’s tenth novel begins; it seems, at first, to be a comedy, perhaps a satire, almost certainly a sexual farce. Yet, in the end, The Fourth Hand is as realistic and emotionally moving as any of Mr. Irving’s previous novels – including The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year – or his Oscar-winning screenplay of The Cider House Rules.
The Fourth Hand is characteristic of John Irving’s seamless storytelling and further explores some of the author’s recurring themes – loss, grief, love as redemption. But this novel also breaks new ground; it offers a penetrating look at the power of second chances and the will to
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About the Author
In 1992, Mr. Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In January 2001, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Date of Birth:March 2, 1942
Place of Birth:Exeter, New Hampshire
Education:B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967
Read an Excerpt
The Lion Guy
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.
As a schoolboy, he was a promising student, a fair-minded and likable kid, without being terribly original. Those classmates who could remember the future hand recipient from his elementary-school days would never have described him as daring. Later, in high school, his success with girls notwithstanding, he was rarely a bold boy, certainly not a reckless one. While he was irrefutably good-looking, what his former girlfriends would recall as most appealing about him was that he deferred to them.
Throughout college, no one would have predicted that fame was his destiny. “He was so unchallenging,” an ex-girlfriend said.
Another young woman, who’d known him briefly in graduate school, agreed. “He didn’t have the confidence of someone who was going to do anything special” was how she put it.
He wore a perpetual but dismaying smile—the look of someone who knows he’s met you before but can’t recall the exact occasion. He might have been in the act of guessing whether the previous meeting was at a funeral or in a brothel, which would explain why, in his smile, there was an unsettling combination of grief and embarrassment.
He’d had an affair with his thesis adviser; she was either a reflection of or a reason for his lack of direction as a graduate student. Later—she was a divorcée with a nearly grown daughter—she would assert: “You could never rely on someone that good-looking. He was also a classic underachiever—he wasn’t as hopeless as you first thought. You wanted to help him. You wanted to change him. You definitely wanted to have sex with him.”
In her eyes, there would suddenly be a kind of light that hadn’t been there; it arrived and departed like a change of color at the day’s end, as if there were no distance too great for this light to travel. In noting “his vulnerability to scorn,” she emphasized “how touching that was.”
But what about his decision to undergo hand-transplant surgery? Wouldn’t only an adventurer or an idealist run the risk necessary to acquire a new hand?
No one who knew him would ever say he was an adventurer or an idealist, but surely he’d been idealistic once. When he was a boy, he must have had dreams; even if his goals were private, unexpressed, he’d had goals.
His thesis adviser, who was comfortable in the role of expert, attached some significance to the loss of his parents when he was still a college student. But his parents had amply provided for him; in spite of their deaths, he was financially secure. He could have stayed in college until he had tenure—he could have gone to graduate school for the rest of his life. Yet, although he’d always been a successful student, he never struck any of his teachers as exceptionally motivated. He was not an initiator—he just took what was offered.
He had all the earmarks of someone who would come to terms with the loss of a hand by making the best of his limitations. Everyone who knew him had him pegged as a guy who would eventually be content one-handed.
Besides, he was a television journalist. For what he did, wasn’t one hand enough?
But he believed a new hand was what he wanted, and he’d alertly understood everything that could go medically wrong with the transplant. 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. After all, it had been someone else’s hand to begin with.
How fitting that he was a television journalist. Most television journalists are pretty smart—in the sense of being mentally quick, of having an instinct to cut to the chase. There’s no procrastination on TV. A guy who decides to have hand-transplant surgery doesn’t dither around, does he?
Anyway, his name was Patrick Wallingford and he would, without hesitation, have traded his fame for a new left hand. At the time of the accident, Patrick was moving up in the world of television journalism. He’d worked for two of the three major networks, where he repeatedly complained about the evil influence of ratings on the news. How many times had it happened that some CEO more familiar with the men’s room than the control room made a “marketing decision” that compromised a story? (In Wallingford’s opinion, the news executives had completely caved in to the marketing mavens.)
To put it plainly, Patrick believed that the networks’ financial expectations of their news divisions were killing the news. Why should news shows be expected to make as much money as what the networks called entertainment? Why should there be any pressure on a news division even to make a profit? News wasn’t what happened in Hollywood; news wasn’t the World Series or the Super Bowl. News (by which Wallingford meant real news—that is, in-depth coverage) shouldn’t have to compete for ratings with comedies or so-called dramas.
Patrick Wallingford was still working for one of the major networks when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Patrick was thrilled to be in Germany on such a historic occasion, but the pieces he filed from Berlin were continually edited down—sometimes to half the length he felt they deserved. A CEO in the New York newsroom said to Wallingford: “Any news in the foreign-policy category is worth shit.”
When this same network’s overseas bureaus began closing, Patrick made the move that other TV journalists have made. He went to work for an all-news network; it was not a very good network, but at least it was a twenty-four-hour international news channel.
Was Wallingford naïve enough to think that an all-news network wouldn’t keep an eye on its ratings? In fact, the international channel was overfond of minute-by-minute ratings that could pinpoint when the attention of the television audience waxed or waned.
Yet there was cautious consensus among Wallingford’s colleagues in the media that he seemed destined to be an anchor. He was inarguably handsome—the sharp features of his face were perfect for television—and he’d paid his dues as a field reporter. Funnily enough, the enmity of Wallingford’s wife was chief among his costs.
She was his ex-wife now. He blamed the travel, but his then-wife’s assertion was that other women were the problem. In truth, Patrick was drawn to first-time sexual encounters, and he would remain drawn to them, whether he traveled or not.
Just prior to Patrick’s accident, there’d been a paternity suit against him. Although the case was dismissed—a DNA test was negative—the mere allegation of his paternity raised the rancor of Wallingford’s wife. Beyond her then-husband’s flagrant infidelity, she had an additional reason to be upset. Although she’d long wanted to have children, Patrick had steadfastly refused. (Again he blamed the travel.)
Now Wallingford’s ex-wife—her name was Marilyn—was wont to say that she wished her ex-husband had lost more than his left hand. She’d quickly remarried, had got pregnant, had had a child; then she’d divorced again. Marilyn would also say that the pain of childbirth—notwithstanding how long she’d looked forward to having a child—was greater than the pain Patrick had experienced in losing his left hand.
Patrick Wallingford was not an angry man; a usually even-tempered disposition was as much his trademark as his drop-dead good looks. Yet the pain of losing his left hand was Wallingford’s most fiercely guarded possession. It infuriated him that his ex-wife trivialized his pain by declaring it less than hers in “merely,” as he was wont to say, giving birth.
Nor was Wallingford always even-tempered in response to his ex-wife’s proclamation that he was an addicted womanizer. In Patrick’s opinion, he had never womanized. This meant that Wallingford didn’t seduce women; he simply allowed himself to be seduced. He never called them—they called him. He was the boy equivalent of the girl who couldn’t say no—emphasis, his ex-wife would say, on boy. (Patrick had been in his late twenties, going on thirty, when his then-wife divorced him, but, according to Marilyn, he was permanently a boy.)
The anchor chair, for which he’d seemed destined, still eluded him. And after the accident, Wallingford’s prospects dimmed. Some CEO cited “the squeamish factor.” Who wants to watch their morning or their evening news telecast by some loser-victim type who’s had his hand chomped off by a hungry lion? It may have been a less-than-thirty-second event—the entire story ran only three minutes—but no one with a television set had missed it. For a couple of weeks, it was on the tube repeatedly, worldwide.
Wallingford was in India. His all-news network, which, because of its penchant for the catastrophic, was often referred to by the snobs in the media elite as “Disaster International,” or the “calamity channel,” had sent him to the site of an Indian circus in Gujarat. (No sensible news network would have sent a field reporter from New York to a circus in India.)
The Great Ganesh Circus was performing in Junagadh, and one of their trapeze artists, a young woman, had fallen. She was renowned for “flying”—as the work of such aerialists is called—without a safety net, and while she was not killed in the fall, which was from a height of eighty feet, her husband/trainer had been killed when he attempted to catch her. Although her plummeting body killed him, he managed to break her fall.
The Indian government instantly declared no more flying without a net, and the Great Ganesh, among other small circuses in India, protested the ruling. For years, a certain government minister—an overzealous animal-rights activist—had been trying to ban the use of animals in Indian circuses, and for this reason the circuses were sensitive to government interference of any kind. Besides—as the excitable ringmaster of the Great Ganesh Circus told Patrick Wallingford, on-camera—the audiences packed the tent every afternoon and night because the trapeze artists didn’t use a net.
What Wallingford had noticed was that the nets themselves were in shocking disrepair. From where Patrick stood on the dry, hard-packed earth—on the “floor” of the tent, looking up—he saw that the pattern of holes was ragged and torn. The damaged net resembled a colossal spiderweb that had been wrecked by a panicked bird. It was doubtful that the net could support the weight of a falling child, much less that of an adult.
Many of the performers were children, and these mostly girls. Their parents had sold them to the circus so they could have a better (meaning a safer) life. Yet the element of risk in the Great Ganesh was huge. The excitable ringmaster had told the truth: the audiences packed the tent every afternoon and night to see accidents happen. And often the victims of these accidents were children. As performers, they were talented amateurs—good little athletes—but they were spottily trained.
Why most of the children were girls was a subject any good journalist would have been interested in, and Wallingford—whether or not one believed his ex-wife’s assessment of his character—was a good journalist. His intelligence lay chiefly in his powers of observation, and television had taught him the importance of quickly jumping ahead to what might go wrong.
The jumping-ahead part was both what was brilliant about and what was wrong with television. TV was driven by crises, not causes. What chiefly disappointed Patrick about his field assignments for the all-news network was how common it was to miss or ignore a more important story. For example, the majority of the child performers in an Indian circus were girls because their parents had not wanted them to become prostitutes; at worst, the boys not sold to a circus would become beggars. (Or they would starve.)
But that wasn’t the story Patrick Wallingford had been sent to India to report. A trapeze artist, a grown woman hurtling downward from eighty feet, had landed in her husband’s arms and killed him. The Indian government had intervened—the result being that every circus in India was protesting the ruling that their aerialists now had to use a net. Even the recently widowed trapeze artist, the woman who’d fallen, joined in the protest.
Wallingford had interviewed her in the hospital, where she was recovering from a broken hip and some nonspecific damage to her spleen; she told him that flying without a safety net was what made the flying special. Certainly she would mourn her late husband, but her husband had been an aerialist, too—he’d also fallen and had survived his fall. Yet possibly, his widow implied, he’d not really escaped that first mistake; her falling on him had conceivably signified the true conclusion of the earlier, unfinished episode.
Now that was interesting, Wallingford thought, but his news editor, who was cordially despised by everyone, was disappointed in the interview. And all the people in the newsroom in New York thought that the widowed trapeze artist had seemed “too calm”; they preferred their disaster victims to be hysterical.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel is clearly critical of the kind of news media epitomized by the footage of Patrick Wallingford’s accident and bythe “calamity channel”in general. And yet it doesn’t renounceTV and modern media entirely. What kind of news coverage do you see the novel advocating?
2. How would you describe the narrator’s tone and perspective? Do you think the narrative voice has a journalistic quality
3. What role does the circus play in the novel? Have you read any other John Irving novels in which circuses are involved? If so, how does Patrick Wallingford’s experience with the Great Ganesh Circus –and his infamous encounter with the lion –compare to depictions of circus characters and themes in Irving’s earlier work?
4. . How did the novel’s portrayal of transplant technology –both the personal dimensions and the philosophical differences rep-resented by Dr. Zajac and the medical ethicists –affect your views on these kinds of medical procedures?
5. Hands –and Wallingford’s “fourth hand”in particular –represent many things in the novel. What does the hand-transplant ordeal seem to say about loss and absence?
6. What are the turning points in Patrick Wallingford’s life? How would you describe his development as a character?
7. From Wallingford’s reverie brought on by the cobalt-blue capsule in India to Otto Clausen’s nightmarish vision in the beer truck, dreams play an important role in the novel. How would you articulate the connection between dreams and the future for these and other characters? Do you think “destiny”Figures into this?
8. E. B. White ’s Charlotte ’s Web and Stuart Little and Michael On-daatje ’s The English Patient are all carefully read and discussed by characters in the novel. How do these books function in The Fourth Hand? What do their readings suggest about the relationship between literature and life?
9. Patrick Wallingford is not a devoted fan or watcher of sports events before he meets Doris and the Clausens. The Clausens are almost religious about their commitment to football and the Green Bay Packers. What does being a sports fan seem to rep-resent in the novel?
10. After Wallingford’s first meeting with Doris Clausen, he develops a new sense of how becoming –or not becoming –a mother affects a woman’s life. What do you make of this new interest? How does it relate to Wallingford’s perceptions of the book’s female characters –Marilyn, Mary, Evelyn Arbuthnot, Sarah Williams, the airport security guard, and Doris Clausen?
11. We learn that Patrick Wallingford’s favorite oxymoron is “no-fault divorce.” Why do you think he sees such irony in this phrase? How do successful marriages differ from unsuccessful marriages in The Fourth Hand? What kind of hope, or concern, do you have for Wallingford’s relationship with Doris Clausen?
12. The novel draws a sharp contrast between Patrick Wallingford’s New York and the Clausens ’Green Bay, Wisconsin, homes and their lake house. What does the Midwest –and “heading north”–seem to represent to Wallingford?
13. In what ways does this novel have elements of a fairy tale or fable?
14. Would you call The Fourth Hand a love story? Why or why not?
John Irving Wrestles Fate
From the July-August issue of Book magazine.
When his sons Colin and Brendan were younger, if John Irving couldn't make time to drive them on their field trips, he would turn to his good friend David Calicchio, who was the only other person he trusted as their chauffeur. Irving even purchased an old Checker automobile, famously large and heavy, so that his children would be well protected if they were in an accident. Once again the father of a young childnine-year-old EverettIrving hasn't gotten any less protective with age. "Even with Everett, he'll only allow certain people to drive him around," says Calicchio. "That's one of his neuroses. You see it in his books, too."
The release preceding Irving's upcoming novel, The Fourth Hand, was 1998's A Widow for One Year, in which a horrifying car accident that predates the book's main action forever alters the lives of those touched by it. And a passage from The World According to Garp, Irving's 1978 breakout bestseller, says it all: "If Garp could have been granted one vast and naive wish, it would have been that he could make the world safe. For children and for grownups. The world struck Garp as unnecessarily perilous for both."
Throughout his work, Irving has concerned himself with the life-altering effects of chance violence; the new book includes not only a hand-eating lion, but two of the air disasters that colored the end of the American millennium: John F. Kennedy Jr.'s disappearance off Martha's Vineyard and the downing of Egypt Air Flight 990. So it comes as no surprise that the most important acquisition for Irvingwhose remarkable writing career spans more than three decadeshas not been glory or respectability or wealth, but protection from that perilous world for those around him. What seems to keep his active mind most fully engaged, day in and day out, is the wrestling match between the inexorability of fate and the deliberate, preventive measures one can take to battle against the chaos that lurks around every corner. This concern, he explains, stems primarily from one thing.
"My view of the world," Irving says, "was intrinsically informed by having children and my fear for what happens to them." Irving became a father when he was just twenty-three, still an undergraduate in college. That early adoption of a paternal outlook turned him into the manand the writerhe would become. A pediatrician once told him that he was approaching an illness of one of his children all wrong. The problem with Irving, the doctor said, was that he thought he was driving a carhe didn't understand that the situation was more like driving a boat. "I don't like driving a boat; I don't like turning the wheel and then waiting to see what happens," he says.
"The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollablesome element of the world that is essentially random and out of control," he says.
The author exerts that same effort, concentrating on doing what he can to fight the inevitable: A hugely popular author, he rails against the irritation of publicity tours ("The thing about being a writer is you're always expected or asked to do something other than just write. No one wants to accept that that is what you do," he says). While so many writers lured to Hollywood don't live up to their potential, Irving found what might well be labeled his greatest success in Tinseltown: For thirteen years, he protected The Cider House Rules from Hollywood, eventually winning an Oscar in 1999 for his own screenplay adaptation. Irving claims his authorial strength is in his rewrites; as he wrote in 1996's collection Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, "My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline. I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too." (It's worth noting that this writer who wrestled competitively until he was thirty-four was voted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.)
Irving is, finally, the kind of person who provides detailed directions to visitors so that they won't get lost, and he presses his young assistant to leave early enough to avoid driving into New York City in the dark. Irving even makes sure that his family eats well. While there may be uncontrollable elements all around, the best course of actionIrving seems to say again and againis not to be overwhelmed by them.
Take The Fourth Hand, which begins as a sexual farceprotagonist Patrick Wallingford, a handsome babe magnet and star TV reporter for a reprehensible unnamed all-news network, is divorced because he can't say no to women. For its first part, the book is primarily about Wallingford's inability to act decisively: He's kind of an anti-Bartleby who, rather than saying "I would prefer not to," says OK all the time. But by the book's turning point, he's gained the ability to stop acquiescing, and is turning toward a much greater degree of self-controland, in the bargain, toward true love.
Irving the writer has been evolving along with Irving the man. Calicchio has been reading Irving's novels in manuscript form since The Water-Method Man, his 1972 sophomore effortCalicchio was an adjunct professor at Windham College, where Irving once taughtand says that though he loves Irving's novels, he doesn't share Irving's affection for Charles Dickens or with the author's nineteenth-century plot devices and structures. So, when it comes to The Fourth Hand, which is a leaner, less convolutedly orchestrated book than some of Irving's earlier ones, Calicchio considers it a good thing that his friend is gaining some distance from what he jokingly refers to as the "Dickens nonsense."
"I like to think he's moving away from the nineteenth-century style," Calicchio says. And while he feels that may mean Irving is losing "a certain epic quality," that's not bad news, either. "I find [it] cleaner, much less frenetic," Calicchio says, adding that the new book is also "still funny as all hell." He recalls talking to Irving at one point while the writer was working on the book, asking him what he was doing and being told, "Well, I've got this crazed man running along the Charles [River] picking up dog turds with a lacrosse stick and throwing them at people rowing their boats."
That sectionwith its poo-hunting hand surgeon and similarly obsessed dogis one of many in The Fourth Hand that are patented John Irving. The bizarre and the grotesque share space with the recognizably familiar. It's not just in Irving's fiction, either: It's in his world. Take one not-so-shaggy dog story, for instance: Dickens, Irving's chocolate labrador, was still a puppy when she accompanied the family on a trip to their cabin on Lake Huron last summer. While playing there, Dickens ate a clam, nearly severing her jugular. As she was recovering, tubes for irrigation were placed in her neck; every time she barked, blood and pus squirted out. Whenever visitors stopped by, the author and his son would purposely try to get the dog to bark. Irving thinks that the story is hilarious, and in his telling, it is.
"John has a wacky way of looking at the world," says producer Richard Gladstein, who helped Irving shepherd The Cider House Rules onto the silver screen. "The things that occur to him [make] for an incredible journey."
Imitation of Life
If Irving's penchant for mixing outlandish humor with unexpected violence is characteristic, his tendency to include what appear to be thinly disguised biographical details in his novels is a trademark. Twenty-one years ago, Irving told Rolling Stone about a woman reviewer who was so certain Irving and T. S. Garp (who lost part of his ear to a dog) were interchangeable that, upon meeting the writer in person, she pushed his hair back to see if he was all there.
"I occasionally like to put things in a novel which I look upon as little friendly notes to my readers," Irving says now. Whether it's the birth date of Bogus Trumper, the protagonist of 1972's The Water-Method Man (which is the same as Irving's) or the oeuvre of T. S. Garp or A Widow for One Year's Ruth Cole (which are both reminiscent of Irving's), such details are, Irving notes, "a way of saying to people who've really read me closely, and over time, 'This is a little something for you.' "
Perhaps that's why so many readers often assume that Irving, an adopted son, is looking for his "real" fatherhis novels often feature characters whose fathers or mothers have died or absconded.
Irving's biological father, John Wallace Blunt, divorced Irving's mother, Frances, before John was born. Blunt disappeared from his son's life and went on to become a hero during WWII. And Frances remarried, this time to Colin Irving, a Slavic languages and literature major at Harvard University and a Russian history professor at Philips Exeter Academy. John Wallace Blunt Jr. became John Irving. But Irving the novelist says that his background isn't what attracts him to those themes (which are found in 1974's The 158-Pound Marriage, 1978's The World According to Garp, 1985's The Cider House Rules, 1989's A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1998's A Widow For One Year, and even The Fourth Hand). Irving says he simply uses those themes for the same reason that Charles Dickens did: because orphans make for good stories.
"I have never lost a single night's sleep wondering or imagining who my biological father is," Irving says. "I passed up several opportunities I could have had to meet him or confront him. I wasn't interested. Even my friends were apoplectic that I was so disinterested." For Irving, whose childhood was uneventful and whose parents loved him, the idea of spending a lot of time searching for one's biological roots is pointless. "It's not gonna do you any good. Unless you're looking for something to attach your victimhood to, which is a common ailment of the contemporary time." Having said all that, Irving mentions that his next novelto be started in Julywill feature a famous actor in search of, yes, his father. This will no doubt mean more critical speculation about the return of parental themes, as well as about Irving's concern with celebrity.
Irving's fame has become a major issue in his life. It is, after all, one thing that's very hard to wrestle into submission, although he would very much like to. "Celebrity isn't something you can control," he says. He tries to protect his kids from the glare of his own spotlight, and he continues to guard his family's privacy from the press. Ever since Garp vaulted onto the bestseller lists, Irving has had an uneasy relationship with fame. He's done hard time on a raft of magazine covers and television shows (the span of his career is illustrated by the fact that he's done The Merv Griffin Show as well as Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher). And his novelsespecially the past twolay into the media for its uneven treatment of celebrities. Irving writes in The Fourth Hand, "There were only two positions the media could take toward celebrities: worship them or trash them." In Irving's case, that about sums it up. "Sometimes he loves the media," says Calicchio. "Sometimes he wishes they'd leave him the hell alone."
Ensconced in a beautiful, cedar-shingled home in southern Vermont, Irving, his wife Janet and their nine-year-old son Everett lead a private life, in a town where Irving is just another local citizen. His circle of Vermont friends (mostly writers) is a close one. The home includes a restaurant-size kitchen, a home gym (with, of course, a wrestling mat) and separate offices for the writer, his wife and their assistant. Irving generally begins his writing day at eight in the morning and doesn't stop until four in the afternoon, when he works out. Afterward, he usually prepares dinner, with a menu that always includes healthy but tasty dishes. ("He makes a chickpea stew that's to die for," says his assistant, Kelly Berkson.) Irving is the family's sole chefthe "absolute one and only," as Janet puts it.
"There's an old saying," says Calicchio, who gave Irving a few culinary pointers when he was first learning his way around a kitchen: "If you want to control the house, control the kitchen. Of course, his first wifeshe controlled the kitchen."
Irving married Shyla Leary in 1964; the couple was divorced in 1982. "Certainly having children, being a father, being part of a family was a very personal thing to me," Irving says. "That was a long first marriage. I was married for eighteen years. And my relationship with those grown boys was always very tight."
Irving calls the years after his divorce a "troublesome" time in his personal life. But in the summer of 1986, the forty-four-year-old met Janet Turnbull, a thirty-two-year-old literary agent from Toronto. Although the two didn't see each other again for three months, they corresponded by mail. Their first official date was a case of "love at first sight," Janet says now. "He's very much like the person who would write those books," she says of the man she married in 1987, "which means he's very sensitive and very funny and very serious."
Irving's personal happiness seems to have rubbed off a great deal on his writing of recent years. It seems more buoyant, less mannered, lessperhapscontrolled. The Fourth Hand, in particular, deals with people's willingness to change, to take a second chance in life. It is also a love story. "I saw that shift myself," says Janet. "I like to think I had something to do with it, obviously." (She certainly had something to do with the new novelshe and John were watching television one night, sitting through a segment on a hand transplant, when she asked, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?")
"There are only two ways you can feel, I suppose, when you have a second marriage and start a second family," Irving says. "You either feel you are lucky to have had that chance or you feel you're a damn fool to have made the same mistake again. And I feel I'm very lucky to have had the opportunity."
Other opportunities have reflected that same willingness to cooperate, to roll with life's punches, to accept some of the inevitability while still trying to guard against its harshness. When Irving worked with a like-minded team in Hollywood, he walked away with an Oscar for his troubles. Though he retains a great deal of control in the movie-making arena (he approves script, cast and director), producer Richard Gladstein says, "John is not used to showing things to people and having them make changes. [But] to John's credit, he fully realized that in order for a good film to be made, he would have to allow the director to become the author of the movie." Irving dedicated the new book to his friends Gladstein and The Cider House Rules director Lasse Hallström. Gladstein confirms that The Fourth Hand is already on its way to becoming a movie, which Irving will script and Hallström will direct. "All of us shared a like sensibility," Gladstein says, recalling the trio's first effort. "We [functioned as] a unit that we're thrilled to re-create."
Time's effects on Irving have been good, both economically and creatively. He no longer worries about money matters, and writing novels seems to have gotten easier for him. In the days before Garp attained bestseller status, Irving told friends and colleagues that if he ever became a self-supporting writer, he would work eight or nine hours a day. But when the opportunity developed, he found himself unable to go the distance. "I was so disappointed in myself," Irving says. "I hadn't trained myself to write eight hours a day." So even though he no longer had to work as a teacher, Irving was still writing only two or three hours a daythe same amount he had spent each day working on his first four novels, back when he was a young husband and father, as well as a student (and later, teacher) at the University of Iowa. Then, rising at five a.m., his writing time had been limited to the first two hours in the morning, before Colin awoke.
But shortly after that initial disappointment with his post-Garp work habits, Irving's endurance training kicked in. Like a runner or weight lifter, he increased his stamina, reaching a point where he had trouble turning off his typewriter for the day. "I had to make myself stop," Irving says, laughing. "It's been that way ever since. [And] I can say, with absolute authority, that any one of the last five novels, beginning with The Cider House Rulesincluding A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year and The Fourth Handis better made than the first four. Including The World According to Garp. I say that the way a tailor knows a suit of clothes. You know how many times you've taken the seams out; you know that the rear pockets are shit; you know you've fixed this part because it wasn't working very well. The reason for that was I didn't have the concentration until I was a full-time writer."
Nowadays, Irving seems to have the whole package. His writing output has picked upa writer who once produced one novel every three or four years, in the past seven, he's published three novels (Circus, Widow and The Fourth Hand), a memoir (My Movie Business, about his work translating The Cider House Rules to the screen), a collection of memories, short fiction and essays (Piggy Sneed) and two screenplays. "The one thing that being a screenwriter and a novelist has done is eliminate excuses," says Irving. "I don't just have a work in progressI have three or four works in progress." He even has some control over his irksome celebrity, being the kind of heavyweight who can say no to his publicist more than most of his colleagues. But, athlete that he is, Irving recognizes the importance of staying loose. After all, there's only so much protection anyone can afford his loved ones. "His kids," Calicchio points out, "have always had a great degree of freedom." They're protected, but they're free. "And he sits there and suffers," Calicchio says, "because he wants them to experience life." (Dorman T. Shindler)
1. The novel is clearly critical of the kind of news media epitomized by the footage of Patrick Wallingford ’s accident and by the “calamity channel ”in general.And yet it doesn ’t renounce TV and modern media entirely.What kind of news coverage do you see the novel advocating?
2. How would you describe the narrator ’s tone and perspective?
Do you think the narrative voice has a journalistic quality?
3. What role does the circus play in the novel?Have you read any other John Irving novels in which circuses are involved? If so,how does Patrick Wallingford ’s experience with the Great Ganesh Circus –and his infamous encounter with the lion – compare to depictions of circus characters and themes in Irving ’s earlier work?
4. How did the novel ’s portrayal of transplant technology –both the personal dimensions and the philosophical differences represented by Dr.Zajac and the medical ethicists –affect your views on these kinds of medical procedures?
5. Hands –and Wallingford ’s “fourth hand ”in particular – represent many things in the novel.What does the hand-transplant ordeal seem to say about loss and absence?
6. What are the turning points in Patrick Wallingford ’s life? How would you describe his development as a character?
7. From Wallingford ’s reverie brought on by the cobalt-blue capsule in India to Otto Clausen ’s nightmarish vision in the beer truck,dreams play an important role in the novel.How would you articulate the connection between dreams and the future for these and other characters?Do you think“destiny” figures into this?
8. E.B.White ’s Charlotte ’s Web and Stuart Little and Michael On-daatje ’s The English Patient are all carefully read and iscussed by characters in the novel.How do these books function in The Fourth Hand ?What do their readings suggest about the relationship between literature and life?
9. Patrick Wallingford is not a devoted fan or watcher of sports events before he meets Doris and the Clausens.The Clausens are almost religious about their commitment to football and the Green Bay Packers.What does being a sports fan seem to represent in the novel?
10. After Wallingford ’s first meeting with Doris Clausen,he develops a new sense of how becoming –or not becoming –a mother affects a woman ’s life.What do you make of this new interest?How does it relate to Wallingford ’s perceptions of the book ’s female characters –Marilyn, Mary, Evelyn Arbuthnot, Sarah Williams, the airport security guard, and Doris Clausen?
11. We learn that Patrick Wallingford ’s favorite oxymoron is “no-fault divorce.”Why do you think he sees such irony in this phrase?How do successful marriages differ from unsuccessful marriages in The Fourth Hand ?What kind of hope, or concern, do you have for Wallingford ’s relationship with Doris Clausen?
12. The novel draws a sharp contrast between Patrick Wallingford ’s New York and the Clausens ’Green Bay,Wisconsin,homes and their lake house.What does the Midwest –and “heading north ”–seem to represent to Wallingford?
13. In what ways does this novel have elements of a fairy tale or fable?
14. Would you call The Fourth Hand a love story? Why or why not?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It took me less than 24 hours to read this novel. I was deeply affected by the emptiness is most of the characters lives. The novel was shocking and bare, I thought it was great. I, admitedly, felt cheated in the middle of the book when time seemed to be rushed a bit, and in the last third of the book where Dr. Zajac's storyline ended. Before reading the novel, I read most of the online reviews, which usually I rely heavily upon. This time I'm glad I decided to read the book anyway. Like I said in the headline, if this is what the other reviewer's call Irving's 'worst' book, then I can't wait until I read some of the more recommended of Irving's novels.
I have to admit, as a John Irving fan, this is not his best book. But the reason I am recommending this book and the reason why I do really like this novel is because there are some really important life lessons to be learned from reading this novel. The story is a quirky, entertaining, and a little unbelieveable, but the characters are complicated, real, quirky and enchanting. If you are looking for a great John Irving book to read, I suggest The World According to Garp.
I found this title to be enjoyable, it is not by any means, Irving's best novel, but it is still good. It is extremely interesting, the characters are interesting and compelling. I flew through this book and had no problem getting through it. I enjoyed the commentary on the manipulation of truth in TV News programs, Irving's points are well thought out. If this wasn't Irving then it would be a good book, but from Irving its not his best. If you're an Irving fan, read it--judge it for yourself.
An entertaining and witty book. Although I had difficulty identifying with Patrick and Doris in the beginning, the author successfully develops the plot making them credible in the end. The supporting roles of Dr. Zajac, Irma, Angie, and, last but not least, Medea are worthy of an Oscar.
Rarely have I been so disappointed - happens when one's gods turn out to have feet of clay. Compared to Garp, Owen Meany, Cider House, Hotel New Hampshire, A Son of the Circus, this was not my hero at his best. Not going to disrespect one of the great writers of our age but read his other works instead and don't judge by this.
so good it took my breath away. honest.
I really loved this book however, there was a point in which it started droning. It reads well and quick and can be finished in a few days. John Irving's characters are very interesting and sometimes complex(as they should be) and his writing seems to show and tell at the same time. In other words, it seems as if the whole story is exposition or summary yet it still conveys incredible detail and the reader is always right in the scene. I recommend although, it is my first book by Irving.
This is the first Irving book I've liked since "Hotel New Hampshire."
If I had flipped open these early pages set in Japan under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have continued. Remember that dreadful Sofia Coppola movie? The Japanese language has a perfectly serviceable "r" sound. How else could one have Hirohito, Kurasawa, Morita, etc. It's Chinese that has an "l" sound but not the "r," idiots. Why would Irving set parts of his book in a country he's never visited? (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.) Ho, ho, no "lobe"? Are they staying in a youth hostel? What unproper, proper or capsule hotel wouldn't provide a crisp cotton blue-and-white yukata? But I was to be traveling and waiting around a lot; I can say this about Irving: easy travel reading. It wasn't just the language problem that felt wrong about Japan. Japan would be a very strange place to hold a women's conference. Honestly, China, Thailand, Hong Kong, even India would be more appropriate. All those places have far more women in high positions in journalism, govt and business than Japan does. The interpreters might well be female, though! Let's just say the proceedings at the conference would be quite different. As would anything taking place in Japan. Also striking here and elsewhere in the book: how seldom Irving attempts descriptions of landscapes, cityscapes, Kyoto, etc. Yes, he does it at the lake in Wisconsin a little. But, otherwise, the lack was really striking to me. He's on a helicopter coming from Narita and he doesn't describe the sensations or the view?! Can one really conduct an everyday conversation under such circumstances? I'm going to make a point of avoiding the one set partly in India, Son of the Circus. Irving's affection for children and family is well known, so it was also dismaying how "little Otto" was depicted--like by a writer who has never cared for one for even an hour. The characters might as well have been slinging around a bag of potatoes. I had reservations about how the character coped with the loss of his hand--dressing, carrying stuff, opening doors. I can't comment on the football material because I skipped over it. The vast majority of observations about journalism were banal too. Our character wants to teach a course at a top journalism school (like my own) on how TV news lacks any context! This was a hot topic circa 1962 but this novel is set around 1999. On the first few days of a journalist class, even in high school, you learn that the top half a single newspaper page contains more news than a 1/2 hour broadcast. Anyone in TV news is well aware of that and how print/writing journalists regard them. Hell, privately TV people tell you as much: "We have to make it as dumb as possible." Blah, blah. Even putting aside the internet demands for a moment, by this time the significance of nat'l news broadcasts had been eroded by rise of local, cable, etc--as the Bill Clinton campaigns demonstrated.OK, most readers won't be annoyed by the above, I suppose, even if they recognize the errors, the sloppiness. How is the sex and love story? I just couldn't care about this shallow Wallingford character one way or another. No emotional engagement. And his misogynistic depictions of women sometimes verged on Updike territory. The free-loving, Queens-accented makeup girl comes to mind but Updike would have a better ear for speech. Of course, Doris is the most compelling character here. This is how we get to know most people, or at least interesting people: in a series of reveals and hints. But why would this couple make any sense?
In this story of a "disaster news" network reporter who loses his left hand in a freak lion maiming, Irving looks at the nature of destiny, personal morality, the things that give meaning to life, and love. It covers a lot of ground, but it all fits together. It is also a searing commentary on the 24 hour news cycle, which seems to underscore the importance of the characters' discovery of meaning.
Strange book but oddly compelling. Very different.
The blurb on the back of the book informed me that the main character has his hand bitten off by a lion. This being a John Irving novel, my first happy thought was that at least such a person would struggle to wrestle...Thus I decided to read this one, though it did turn out to have many of the features of Irving novels that have irritated me in the past - preoccupation with American Football (though it might even have been baseball, that's how little I understood of it), at least one bedroom scene that had me reaching for the sick bag, and a determination to recycle the same funnies time and time again. (Though in some cases, like the turd and the lacrosse stick, to throw them away on a single mention might have been considered wasteful)On the other hand, the story was told in a more succinct, accessible way than some of his others, and the account of the visit to Japan, in the early stages of the book, was hilarious. The guy can definitely write, and he can do great satire too, though farce often takes over as the scenes are only funny because he has chosen to make the characters so bizarre and their behaviour utterly alien.And I can confirm that sexual grappling aside, There Was no Wrestling!!
I felt like John Irving was just showing off his facility for writing, and coming up with weird plots and whipping out books. The characters in this were unlikeable and I didn't gain anything from having read this.
Well, I think the climax of the story was when Wallingford had his hand bit off. Then, it drug on longer than it needed to with a few too many sex-scenes for my liking. I would definately lable this book a romance novel, if not erotic lit because of how many times the characters within it had sex. I'm not sure whether or not I would say it glorifies romantic relationships even though I would classify it as a romance novel. The characters within it are also very quirky and at times unbelievable. Nothing in this book impressed me, nothing quite made me turn my nose up at it. It's a meh book for me though I did enjoy the author's attempts at character growth, which novels that are of poorer quality neglect.
This book is not in my Irving top 5, but it's still an enjoyable book about love and growth.
Not my favorite work by John Irving but has some merit. The audacity of the women in the book when it comes to wanting a baby by this man is amazing. Does bring up some interesting ideas about emotions one could encounter from receiving a transplant.
Patrick Wallingford is a news announcer known for handsomeness and bravado. When he loses his hand to a lion he receives a new one from a stranger-but the wife of the stranger wants to keep in touch with the hand and even seduces Patrick so she can have his child. Very John Irving.
I enjoyed the style, but there wasn't enough substance in this book.
This was entertaining while I read it, but it isn't all that great. I know that not every Irving book can be a good as The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany (my favorites), but I expected more. Without giving away the story, I just didn't buy into the woman's obsession with the hand or the man's love for the woman. And, in a very un-Irving way, there were many loose ends -- several characters with prominent parts in the beginning of the book disappear without a trace. We're told that the protagonist changed, and that the "new" Patrick Wallingford is not like the "old" Wallingford, but I couldn't really see why he changed, and why his changing necessarily meant that characters would disappear. It was like Irving packed the first half of the book with typical Irving situations and characters, then got bored with the whole thing, so spent the second half resolving it all in the fastest, most simplistic, straightforward way he could.
One of the worst books I have ever read. Don't waste your time.
Not John's best, but an enjoyable story. Didn't do a whole lot for me, but some may enjoy it. Fast paced narrative. Lots of charractors.
I know that John Irving is a human being. I’ve seen him in person; therefore I know that he is human, which is to say, flawed. I accept that. What I have not accepted—until reading “The Fourth Hand”—is that he is a flawed writer. As a MASSIVE John Irving fan, I have genuinely loved every novel he published prior to this one, from the middle-aged suburban angst of “The 158-Pound Marriage” to the exotic lunacy of “A Son of the Circus” (which required three attempts before I could actually even make it past page 50 or so). Most of Irving’s novels are saturated in his signature style, which is one of the features that I positively love about an Irving novel. But this one, well, it’s certainly not his best effort. It lacks his style and tone. If I hadn’t read his name on the front cover of the book, I would have had a difficult time believing that he is the author. The protagonist, although he does experience some redemption and growth throughout this relatively brief—for Irving—novel, is just not very likeable. Perhaps that was Irving’s point—he’s a TV news personality who’s lost his left hand in a bizarre lion attack, and that odd fate makes him more curious than sympathetic. He falls in love with the woman who donates her recently deceased husband’s hand as a transplant. And bizarre romantic lunacy ensues. Or maybe it was supposed to. And that’s just it—in an Irving novel, a huge part of the enjoyment of the story is going along for the narrative ride. Although it’s usually impossible to tell where Irving is going with a story, I have always been confident that he knew what he was doing, and I was truly comfortable ceding narrative vision to him as a master storyteller. That vision is absent from “The Fourth Hand.” It pains me to say that this is the first John Irving novel that I do not truly love. But that will not stop me from reading the ones he’s written after this one, and the ones he’s yet to write.
John Irving has been a gifted story-teller since the early 70s and remains true to form with his wonderful novel, THE FOURTH HAND (2001). His characters in this and other stories frequently fall outside the so-called mainstream, yet are so well developed that readers can easily sympathize with their plight. The central character, Patrick Wallingford, a New York based journalist with a sensationalist news network has his left hand bitten off by a lion while covering a circus in India. Dr Nicholas Zajac, a renowned Boston hand surgeon played lacrosse during his prep school and Amherst days. He has an aversion for dog feces and is often found along the shores of the Charles scooping up theses turds with his lacrosse stick and firing them at unsuspecting rowers. Finally, Doris Clausen, a Wisconsin housewife employed in the Green Bay Packers ticket office, seeks out Dr Zajac, who in turn contacts Wallingford, because she wants to donate her thirty-nine year old husband's left hand to the unfortunate journalist. All of these characters are sympathetic in their own way. Wallingford is a very nice, sexually active, and generally obliging ladies' man who goes with the flow. It is interesting that all of his friends are women, several of whom (his ex-wife included) are older than he. Dr Zajac is a conscientious and loving divorced father, as well as a master at his craft, and Doris Clausen wants more than anything to have a child. She is loved and adored by her husband and his extended family, well regarded by her colleagues at work, and very different from the more urban personalities in Patrick Wallingford's social milieu. This novel includes a brief, albeit serious, conversation about abortion in a Cambridge hotel room, it satirizes feminists, particularly during a women's conference in Tokyo, and it chides the media (and public) for their obsession with the sensational, sadly at the expense of serious news. But all of this aside, one comes away from this novel believing that Irving has no agenda other than to spin a good yarn. The absence of all-pervasive sociopolitical moralizing is very refreshing indeed. Finally, one trademark of a good story is having a central character pursue a challenging, if not unattainable, love interest. THE FOURTH HAND meets this litmus test. In spite of everything, it is ultimately a feel good novel, which is highly recommended and very deserving of five stars.
I've been a big fan of Irving since The World According to Garp. But this is bay far the least interesting book so far from an otherwise great writer. But even a so-so Irving book gets 3 stars.