The Fourth Hand by John Irving
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June 15, 2002
Usually when I do second-chance reviews, I realize I was too hard on the book the first time or just didn't get it and then reverse my earlier opinion. In this case, a second reading (after reading all but 1 of Irving's other novels) provided no evidence upon which to reverse my previous review. Though I do have better reasons why I don't like the book.
After 30 years of publishing novels, there is an expectation built up in the reader's mind. I'm all for leniancy if the book is early in the author's career, but at this point Irving has done too much for a sloppy book like "The Fourth Hand" to warrant anything but one star. My personal theory about this book is that it was rushed from start to finish in order to satisfy the demands of the publisher, who had not been able to put out an Irving novel in about 5 years. Another explanation would only increase my disappointment in the book and its author.
There are a lot of things that, after reading all but 1 of Irving's novels as I said earlier, are just atypical of the author. The overly-conversational tone of the narration is one difference I noted right away. There was also a lot telling instead of showing involved in getting Wallingford and Dr. Zajac together for the hand transplant. Dr. Zajac himself was a cause of consternation for me as well. The way he breaks out of his old life by finding love and marriage serves to foreshadow and contrast with Wallingford and Mrs. Claussen's relationship, and yet when Dr. Zajac's participation in the book ends, the novel is only half-finished and other than performing the unsuccessful transplant surgery, he didn't contribute much to the overall story. After learning all about his career, his odd habits, and building his new life with Irma (his maid), his son, and his dog, Dr. Zajac's character just didn't seem to go anywhere.
The character of Wallingford troubled me for a long time and I finally managed to put my finger on what was bothering me. In everything else, Wallingford acquiesces to the demands of others (you can even make the case his acceptance of the transplant surgery is giving in to Dr. Zajac & Mrs. Claussen) and yet he's always complaining about the news stories he covers and about the media in general. He doesn't care about anything else (especially who he sleeps with) so why does he care so much about his job? It doesn't help that almost none of Wallinford's background before getting his hand chomped off is given to address why he's so passionate about the news and so passionless about everything else. Someone with so little backbone and smarts as Wallingford made a lousy choice to carry the banner of what I am sure are the author's beliefs regarding the subject of the media.
The question of Why things happen can be asked continually throughout this book, and in no case are any real answers given. Why is Mrs. Claussen so intent on giving the hand to Wallinford? Why does Wallingford even want the hand? Why does he want her so badly? Why was this book allowed out the door of the publisher?
Another nagging concern is the overabundance of colloquial references--the death of JFK Jr., Flight 800, the seasons of the Green Bay Packers from 97-99, The English Patient, Stuart Little, and so forth. Some, like the description of Lambeau Field and Walter Payton as the NFL's leading rusher, are already outdated. Others that seemed so important at the time have now faded to distant memory in the wake of recent events. It was the same problem I had with "Owen Meaney" and the Iran-Contra scandal--it was old, OLD news by the time I was reading the book, and that's the problem in writing about current (at the time) events--after a while the public's interest fades away. Again, in the wake of more current events, things like the Iran-Contra hearings, JFK Jr.'s crash, and Flight 800 really don't seem to matter a whole lot anymore, do they?
What "The Fourth Hand" makes me wonder is if Irving's writing isn't in decline. Everything since "The Cider House Rules" just hasn't been as well-written; maybe the author peaked with that book.
Well, better luck next time.