John Irving,
The Fourth Hand
(Random House, 2001)

As a long time admirer of John Irving, I was very pleased to come across one of his more recent novels, The Fourth Hand. Those who have read any of Irving's books may read the title of this one and assumed it was a freak-show type of book, perhaps dealing with a carnival atmosphere or, at the very least, be about a feuding team of pianists. This book instead concerns a rather ordinarily intelligent, plastically handsome anchorman named Patrick Wallingford who, through stupidity or very bad karma, loses his left hand to a hungry Indian lion. And thereby lies the tale.

As may be expected, the entire horrible incident is caught on tape and, in true television style, is shown repeatedly. Rather than being known for his style, wit, analytical ability or any other remarkable trait, the anchorman becomes known as "the lion guy."

Hence, Patrick becomes notorious for a noxious reason, not for any noble traits, but instead for breaching the fourth wall of reporting by becoming part of the story. For a time, Patrick is able to cope, even thrive, and achieve a certain cachet as the lion guy, so much so that an eminent hand surgeon in the area decides to start a website for people who might wish to donate a hand for transplant. Once Patrick meets the widow of the donor of the hand he ends up with, he is astonished to find that he will only gain the hand with some rather iron-clad clauses.

As one of the subplots, the hand surgeon has his own quirks, among them lobbing dog calling cards into the Charles River via a lacrosse stick. This surgeon's life and the lives of a number of other characters are significantly affected by the loss of Patrick's left hand.

As in every Irving novel I have read, there are always undercurrents ebbing and flowing throughout the story, and we as participants often reach an unexpected riptide before we reach the denouement of the story. This book is absorbing, stimulating literature, and well worth reading.

- Rambles
written by Ann Flynt
published 22 March 2003

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