The Fourth Hand, by John Irving, Read by Jason Culp, Random House Audio, 2001
Considering other books I’ve read of Irving’s The Fourth Hand is one of his shorter works. There are similarities to his previous novels in a number of regards, specifically somewhat promiscuous protagonists, a rambling sort of plot with only a vague sense of direction, and a collection of very naturally presented oddities. In fact, that could serve as an encapsulated description of Irving’s literary career.
By this phrase “naturally presented oddities” what I mean to suggest is that the very eccentric characters and queer twists of fate that regularly fill an Irving book feel natural. That is to say, there are any number of books in which the authors deliberately attempt to shock, provoke, or titillate with the bizarre. The career of Chuck Palahniuk is a perfect example of this trying-too-hard phenomenon.
In Irving, the eccentricities, the quirks, have the organic feel of the absolutely in-character reactions of individuals in trying or unusual life situations. When we first meet the novel’s protagonist, Patrick Wallingford, we are informed that he is very attractive to women and that he is also very accommodating to them. Later, after his left hand is bitten off by a lion while he’s in India, we are told that women frequently, upon meeting him, sympathetically grip his left arm just above the end of his stump. That he permits this intimacy from strangers would be an incongruity in another character in another book by another author. But Irving has painted his responses and his boundaries so effectively beforehand that it’s unsurprising.
And it is through women that we get our first glimpse of Wallingford, the soon-to-be first-ever hand-transplant recipient. Through various declarative qualities provided by ex-girlfriends, teachers, an older mistress, a portrait (a trifle one-sided, of course, though consistent) of the man is drawn, at once sympathetic and typical for Irving. He is a serial adulterer, a lovable rogue who just can’t say no. At the book’s beginning, he is a local television news reporter who eventually moves on to a 24-hour cable news channel. It is while reporting on a story about Indian children sold to traveling circuses, that Wallingford loses his hand to a lion.
This mishap leads his career downward from up and coming anchor back down to field reporter covering freakshows, comical accidental deaths, “human interest” pieces, and other low level tragedies. He is well known around the world as “lion guy” and “disaster man.” The three-minute video of his dismemberment becomes a best seller in Japan. Later, oddly, it is the failure of his hand transplant that leads him to regain his footing in the news business and to finally arrive at that anchor spot. The logic of that happenstance leaves me a bit confused. As does the popularity for a bit of his on the news where he tries and fails to successfully learn to use a variety of new prostheses.
While it adds little to the theme or forward movement of the novel, Irving takes a lengthy detour into the life of the doctor who performs Wallingford’s ultimately unsuccessful hand transplant.
Doctor Zajac is, at first, somewhat the mirror negative of Patrick. He’s somewhat afraid of women and marries the first woman who sleeps with him. Completely unremembered in high school or college, he becomes a hand specialist, the hand surgeon to the stars, his desperate attempt at being viewed as a success. He’s a jogging fanatic, a lover of songbirds, and desperately fixated on keeping his yard and the sidewalks free from dog shit. While jogging, he carries a la crosse stick for scooping the shit he encounters. Zajac is so bizarre a bird, none of this seems unreasonable.
Zajac’s subplot, however, isn’t really important to the story and, try as I might, I find it difficult to resolve the need for it. Zajac’s role in the story is minimal save for the portion of the novel solely relegated to him. After the surgery, he virtually drops out of the novel only to sneak in literally in the last three minutes of the story, also for no good effect. The closest accounting I can make for the prominence given to him in the novel’s allotment of time is that he serves as a mirror device. He, like Wallingford, is divorced; he, like Wallingford (eventually) has a son with who he needs to build a better relationship; he, like Wallingford, finds love where he least expects too.
Only, I have to make several intuitive leaps to connect this together. I’m not saying I want Irving (or any author) to hand me the characters, the plot, the theme, the meaning, on a plate ready made. I’m saying I shouldn’t have to work so hard as a reader to put the puzzle pieces in place with such slender possibilities to work on. Zajac finds love where he least expects it? Join the club. It’s not enough to justify him — even if his little side plot is enjoyable (also in itself not reason enough to include something).
The story behind Patrick’s transplant hand is much more fascinating and more important to the tale itself. The hand is provided by a woman whose husband accidentally shoots himself in the head following the loss of the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. The widow, Doris Clausen, has terms. The first of which is that Patrick impregnate her (something her dead husband had been unable to accomplish after ten year’s effort), which happens in an instant in the doctor’s office. This is easier to believe in the telling than in my recounting. The second is that she gets visitation rights to the hand. Mrs. Clausen has the somewhat magical ability to give every heterosexual male an erection with just the tone of her voice. This has the result of making Patrick fall in love with her and agree to her terms immediately, and a good portion of the book involves his seemingly hopeless infatuation, flying to Green Bay on Sundays to watch Packers games with Mrs. Clausen. There he meets Otto’s family who all regard the hand with love and affection.
He also, during this time, meets his son and develops a beginning relationship with the infant. This knits his desire to marry Doris all the more tightly to his soul. The fumbling of a first time father with baby feeding, diaper changing, and appropriate entertainment are lightly enjoyable. However, Wallingford dips into slightly stock character here — the bachelor who doesn’t know any better. Irving seems to recognize this and reminds us that Wallingford is changing a diaper with one hand.
For some strange reason, Irving refers to these two main characters alternately as Patrick and Wallingford and as Doris and Mrs. Clausen within the same paragraph. This would have some sense to it if the book were about duality (and might give us another miniscule thread to weave Dr. Zajac into the story), yet it comes off as just some odd quirk of the author’s. I can’t think of another book that does such a thing (perhaps a Russian novel where everyone has a name, a last name, a patronymic, a diminutive, etc.), so I have to suspect it’s as deliberate as anything else. The reason for it is difficult to pin down. Perhaps it has to do with the differences between one’s personal life and one’s on-camera or public persona. If so, Irving gives no indication.
Near the book’s end, when we get faint, second-hand introductions to two violent and/or unstable characters, I began to get that Irving-feeling that soon the deaths of main characters would be coming. His books have a good habit of rubbing out characters we’ve become fond of. Would it be the makeup artist’s brother, Vito? Or the Clausen who had shamed the family by shooting an eagle and was always considered a bit of a loose cannon? When he pops up a couple chapters later, and we are informed that he regularly calls Patrick to threaten him, that doom feeling started to strengthen. I won’t spoil the book by letting you know how this turned out.
The reader Jason Culp has a bland style of reading that lends itself to an almost hypnotically dull rendition. I don’t particularly recommend Irving for audiobook fans. There’s something too historical, too vignetteish, too lengthy and mildly uneventful/eventful to fully capture one’s attention. The oftentimes apparently aimless trajectory of his work can be a bit frustrating unless you’re reading the book yourself, fully inhabiting the world, whisked away.