The Fourth HandThe Fourth Hand by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back to familiar territory with this one. Another John Irving tale populated with quirky characters and inexplicably weird situations which only he can pull off into a quasi-realistic whole that affects and entertains.

Patrick Wallingford is a good looking, mild mannered TV reporter for a 24 hours Disaster News channel. The kind of guy who doesn’t really try with the women, they just fall into bed with him with an alacrity which will drive the rest of us nuts. Predictably, his marriage is on the rocks, a situation emboldened by a hilarious call with his wife when he was in the middle of something in his hotel room with a German camerawoman. However, in the course of one of his field assignments, while reporting on a circus on location in India he ends up losing a hand to a hungry lion there. This turns him into a TV celebrity with people being treated to reruns of the incident time and again and ensuring that Wallingford will never be unnoticeable now.

Dr. Zajac is quite different from Patrick. Focused, determined and talented, he wants to perform the first successful hand transplant surgery, and wants the famous Patrick to be his subject. They need a donor though. This is where another critical character comes into the picture. Doris Clausen and her husband are deeply in love with each other and with the Green Bay Packers. Seeing Patrick’s plight, she is moved to suggest that should anything happen to him, her husband should pledge to donate his hand for the cause. Sadly for them, something does happen and Patrick has his donor. However, more than the hand, will it be Mrs. Clausen herself who turns his life around? As with other Irving novels, this tragicomically brilliant context is further endeared to us by the question of what would happen if the donor’s widow requires visitation rights with the new owner of her husband’s hand. Outrageous probably, but Irving crafts a touching and hilarious story out of it.

The funny thing though is that the whole book is not about the hand surgery, which in itself would have made a compelling enough story. Instead, through Irving tackles the whole question of second chances both at love and life and Patrick’s redemption in more ways than one. A person who usually just acquiesces to things and people happening to him, he finds there maybe something more concrete that life can offer him if he is willing to be patient. Finally, is it the hand or his heart which will get fixed?

I do wish Irving had spent more time on Dr. Zajac and his housekeeper Irma though. Theirs was a deliciously worked out tale which sort of settles itself partway through the book, the result being that for the rest of the novel we hardly get a reference to them. And the sex. Irving has a way with weird sex, but it could be toned down at places. At times, the fascination some of his books have with describing weird sex takes away from the heart of the story, and it is the case here with Patrick Wallingford. Almost every woman he meets is interested in jumping into bed with him at the slightest provocation (or in having his seed for their baby), which to be fair does lead to some hilarious bedroom sequences. Probably a bit too much time was spent on him considering he does seem a shallow protagonist. It would have been hugely interesting to see some more of Mrs. Clausen and the aforementioned doctor.

But at the end of the day, as is usually the case with me and Mr. Irving, it works. The characters and feelings are memorable and won’t leave the imagination soon. His tackling of Patrick’s changing life and the tumult of emotions he (and Mrs. Clausen) goes through are tenderly done with dollops of life affirming humor.

In other words, totally worth your time.

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