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?