Patrick Wallingford, a handsome, vapid, lecherous television reporter is missing his left hand due to its having been bitten off by a circus lion in India. The Fourth Hand, a witty, breezy, entertaining novel, is nonetheless also missing something. Let it be known that on the whole, I greatly admire John Irving’s work. Ordinarily I find his novels not only brilliantly touched with humor, but rendered with moments of tragedy engineered to surprise and inspire. His tales are rather like life itself with a twist of the absurd, which is their ultimate appeal. The most perplexing aspect of not absolutely adoring this novel is that it is difficult to pinpoint why I don’t absolutely adore it. My imperfect conclusion is that though these characters have the same lovable duality, the same distractions of vice and reluctance to learn lessons that Irving is known for, they are not fully fleshed out. Patrick Wallingford is no Garp, and he is certainly no Owen Meany.
Wallingford is a character one hates on page twenty, loves on page two-hundred, and is indifferent to by page three-hundred and seven. The major failing here is that the story lacks momentum as well as the satisfaction that Irving’s endings usually bestow. It’s not enough that a hand transplant from a newlywed Packers fan conjures erotic and prescient dreams in Wallingford, and it’s not enough that the widow of the donor, for all intents and purposes, forces Wallingford to impregnate her. Furthermore, it’s certainly not enough that Irving dubs it a great big ‘coincidence’ that the newlywed dies after his beloved volunteers his hand to Wallingford, and after he is found to be sterile. While convenient for a pulpy flick involving a murderous ovulating wife, this facet of the plot comes across as a bothersome loose end in the context of Irving’s novel, as he gives no definite explanation of—or even a whit of subtext on—the fantastical circumstances under which poor Otto Clausen meets with his demise. It seems we are supposed to like Widow Clausen, but are we to believe she didn’t willingly choose a baby over her husband? Perhaps more importantly, why would she choose Wallingford at all?
The main impediment to the greatness of this novel is that Irving’s talent should not be boiled down to rely upon farce or the eternal “what if,” as he might say. There are deeper levels of principle that are absent, and there is no indication of what, besides the immorality of the American media, this book comments on or condemns. This story is in sore need of a true journey of purpose, for there are times when it gets side-tracked, or swallowed up like the hand of its hero, by pointless sexual escapades, and a messy subplot about an imbalanced hand surgeon. Bear in mind though, that The Fourth Hand, for all its messiness, is a still good read. There is still laughter to be found, tension to be savored, and, if nothing else, a happy ending to lull us into complacency. I myself prefer, at the close of a winding Irving tale, to wonder and to question, to mull over the uncertain future of the characters, never knowing whether they will “keep passing the open windows.”