Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #66: The Fourth Hand by John Irving

This is my first and, unfortunately, probably last foray into John Irving’s writing. Neither horribly bad nor good, The Fourth Hand is a somewhat saccharine, somewhat mystical, somewhat loony, and only occasionally funny tale of an overly-handsome newscaster pursued by women for sexual encounters that never turn into anything more, because, as one woman describes him, there is not enough of Patrick Wallingford—good looks notwithstanding –to fall for. He strolls through life, a nice guy to whom events largely happen or don’t happen, and he takes what comes his way, neither demanding more, expecting more, nor offering more.

Wallingford’s life changes when a ridiculous interview he is sent to conduct at a circus in India goes bad, and his hand gets eaten by a lion. Captured on tape, the tragedy is played and re-played on television and translates into instant fame back home, inspiring at least one besotted Midwestern housewife to offer her beer trucker husband’s hand to Wallingford, in the event of hubby’s death. Surprise, the trucker dies of a self-inflicted gunshot—not suicide–following the Super Bowl loss of his favorite team, and the widow Doris has the hand rushed to a famous hand surgeon who has offered to do the transplant. Her conditions include “visitation rights” with her husband’s hand and, it turns out, a pre-operation seduction of the befuddled but willing Wallingford by a feverish Doris so that she can have the baby she has wanted for a decade.

The hand operation is apparently a success, Doris gets her baby, and Wallingford is gently pushed out of her life. Everyone should be happy, except Wallingford has somehow fallen in love with Doris and spends the rest of the novel trying to win her love, while simultaneously having multiple one-night stands with other women who convince him, intentionally or otherwise, that it’s time for him to grow up.

Sounds silly, and it is. Worse, Wallingford’s insipidness does not inspire the slightest sympathy, the humor of his situation notwithstanding. He stumbles from one sexual encounter to the next–from the German journalist he works with in India, to an (imagined?) grandmother in Japan, to a scheming colleague back in the newsroom, to the gum-snapping young makeup girl on the job—and seems to come away with little more than love bites and a sore you-know-what. If he is learning anything about himself along the way, it is not obvious.

Doris is a more interesting character, complex and somewhat mysterious, no mean feat to portray in a football-loving beer trucker’s wife from the mid-West. Even so, Doris and the three-day conversion she manages to inspire in Wallingford–involving getting peed in the face by his infant son and learning how to diaper with one hand–left this reader uninspired, as does John Irving’s literary reputation.

The “fourth hand” of the title, by the way, refers to Wallingford’s phantom hand and not what I, or you, probably thought. Perhaps Irving should have left that more ambiguous?

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9 thoughts on “Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #66: The Fourth Hand by John Irving

  1. This is probably Irving’s worst novel. His best two are The World According to Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany, by far. And Owen Meany is definitely the easiest of his books to love. You should give one of those a shot and then judge him.

  2. Valerie Rush on said:

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll definitely give it another shot! 🙂

  3. I agree with Ashley. Don’t give up on Irving because of The Fourth Hand. The Cider House Rules and Until I Find You are also good, but none are in the same league as Owen Meany

    • valyruh on said:

      Thanks for the comment. I already have Owen Meany on my next-read list! 🙂

    • I’m in the minority in not really liking The Cider House Rules, and I can’t really figure out why. Did you read his latest book? Last Night in Twisted River, I think? I haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet.

      • valyruh on said:

        No, so far have only read Irving’s The Fourth Hand, which fell into my lap, so to speak. I’ll have to give some of his other writings a chance, now that I know how widely-read and liked he is. I thought The Fourth Hand was representative and was most disappointed, but am happy to find there’s the good stuff still waiting for me to discover! 🙂

      • No, it’s one of the many unread books on my shelf. I’ll get round to it at some point, I’m sure.

      • Haven’t got round to reading it yet, no.

  4. I read Owen Meaney first. In fact, I was reading it on a trip, lost it, and immediately bought a new copy so I could finish it without interruption; unfortunately, I feel like I read his best book first. I loved it so much that I didn’t want to read any of his other books, and when I came to Garp (my husband’s favourite) I was left cold. We have a theory that whichever of Irving’s books you read first, that’s your favourite, except The Fourth Hand. I found it a let down as well.

    Sidenote: The neighbourhood the narrator of Owen Meaney lives in and the church he goes to are my old neighbourhood in Toronto, and my mother is still a very active member of that church.

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