The Fourth Hand

The Fourth Hand

3.2 44
by John Irving

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The Fourth Hand asks an interesting question: "How can anyone identify a dream of the future?" The answer: "Destiny is not imaginable, except in dreams or to those in love."

While reporting a story from India, a New York television journalist has his left hand eaten by a lion; millions of TV viewers witness the accident. In Boston, a renowned hand surgeon

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The Fourth Hand asks an interesting question: "How can anyone identify a dream of the future?" The answer: "Destiny is not imaginable, except in dreams or to those in love."

While reporting a story from India, a New York television journalist has his left hand eaten by a lion; millions of TV viewers witness the accident. In Boston, a renowned hand surgeon awaits the opportunity to perform the nation's first hand transplant; meanwhile, in the distracting aftermath of an acrimonious divorce, the surgeon is seduced by his housekeeper. A married woman in Wisconsin wants to give the one-handed reporter her husband's left hand - that is, after her husband dies. But the husband is alive, relatively young, and healthy.

Editorial Reviews Review
The Barnes & Noble Review
Irving fans might be surprised by this follow-up to the hugely successful A Widow for One Year. It's short! Weighing in at just over 300 pages, The Fourth Hand is the author's leanest novel in 25 years. Gone are the in-depth, Dickensian (and sometimes bombastic) character studies that endeared T. S. Garp and Owen Meany to millions of readers. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. What this novel lacks in character development, Irving more than makes up for in a bizarre, farcical, razor-sharp narrative that is, more often than not, wet-your-pants funny.

Patrick Wallingford is an obscenely good-looking television journalist whose biggest problem in the world is that women can't stop falling in love with him (except his wife, who has fallen deeply out of love with him). While he's on assignment in India, covering the death of a trapeze artist's husband at the Great Ganesh Circus, Patrick's hand is chomped off by a hungry lion. Millions of people witness this horrifying event, and Patrick becomes a worldwide object of pity (which helps him bed more women than he ever thought possible). Years later, he finds himself a candidate for a risky hand transplant operation. Enter Boston surgeon Dr. Nicholas Zajac, a brilliant hand specialist who has a penchant for hurling dog turds at unsuspecting rowers on the Charles River, and Doris Clausen, a Wisconsin widow who wants to give Patrick her husband's hand -- for a price. What happens when these baroque worlds collide is an immensely readable tale that runs the gamut of human emotions.

In John Irving's novels, truth resides not in beauty but in the absurd. His characters are repeatedly tested under extreme and, at times, grotesque physical and emotional conditions, yet he never throws them into a situation they can't handle. Though the characters are not as well drawn here, as in, say, The Cider House Rules, their struggle to understand themselves in a world imbued with violence is no less powerful. Though perhaps a minor work in Irving's oeuvre, The Fourth Hand is a major story about the redemptive power of love and the all-too-human desire for connection. (Stephen Bloom)

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.42(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.77(d)

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Chapter one

The Lion Guy

Imagine a young man on his way to a less-than-thirty-second event—the loss of his left hand, long before he reached middle age.

As a schoolboy, he was a promising student, a fair-minded and likable kid, without being terribly original. Those classmates who could remember the future hand recipient from his elementary-school days would never have described him as daring. Later, in high school, his success with girls notwithstanding, he was rarely a bold boy, certainly not a reckless one. While he was irrefutably good-looking, what his former girlfriends would recall as most appealing about him was that he deferred to them.

Throughout college, no one would have predicted that fame was his destiny. "He was so unchallenging," an ex-girlfriend said.

Another young woman, who'd known him briefly in graduate school, agreed. "He didn't have the confidence of someone who was going to do anything special" was how she put it.

He wore a perpetual but dismaying smile—the look of someone who knows he's met you before but can't recall the exact occasion. He might have been in the act of guessing whether the previous meeting was at a funeral or in a brothel, which would explain why, in his smile, there was an unsettling combination of grief and embarrassment.

He'd had an affair with his thesis adviser; she was either a reflection of or a reason for his lack of direction as a graduate student. Later—she was a divorcée with a nearly grown daughter—she would assert: "You could never rely on someone that good-looking. He was also a classic underachiever—he wasn't as hopeless as you first thought. You wanted to help him. You wanted to change him. You definitely wanted to have sex with him."

In her eyes, there would suddenly be a kind of light that hadn't been there; it arrived and departed like a change of color at the day's end, as if there were no distance too great for this light to travel. In noting "his vulnerability to scorn," she emphasized "how touching that was."

But what about his decision to undergo hand-transplant surgery? Wouldn't only an adventurer or an idealist run the risk necessary to acquire a new hand?

No one who knew him would ever say he was an adventurer or an idealist, but surely he'd been idealistic once. When he was a boy, he must have had dreams; even if his goals were private, unexpressed, he'd had goals.

His thesis adviser, who was comfortable in the role of expert, attached some significance to the loss of his parents when he was still a college student. But his parents had amply provided for him; in spite of their deaths, he was financially secure. He could have stayed in college until he had tenure—he could have gone to graduate school for the rest of his life. Yet, although he'd always been a successful student, he never struck any of his teachers as exceptionally motivated. He was not an initiator—he just took what was offered.

He had all the earmarks of someone who would come to terms with the loss of a hand by making the best of his limitations. Everyone who knew him had him pegged as a guy who would eventually be content one-handed.

Besides, he was a television journalist. For what he did, wasn't one hand enough?

But he believed a new hand was what he wanted, and he'd alertly understood everything that could go medically wrong with the transplant. What he failed to realize explained why he had never before been much of an experimenter; he lacked the imagination to entertain the disquieting idea that the new hand would not be entirely his. After all, it had been someone else's hand to begin with.

How fitting that he was a television journalist. Most television journalists are pretty smart—in the sense of being mentally quick, of having an instinct to cut to the chase. There's no procrastination on TV. A guy who decides to have hand-transplant surgery doesn't dither around, does he?

Anyway, his name was Patrick Wallingford and he would, without hesitation, have traded his fame for a new left hand. At the time of the accident, Patrick was moving up in the world of television journalism. He'd worked for two of the three major networks, where he repeatedly complained about the evil influence of ratings on the news. How many times had it happened that some CEO more familiar with the men's room than the control room made a "marketing decision" that compromised a story? (In Wallingford's opinion, the news executives had completely caved in to the marketing mavens.)

To put it plainly, Patrick believed that the networks' financial expectations of their news divisions were killing the news. Why should news shows be expected to make as much money as what the networks called entertainment? Why should there be any pressure on a news division even to make a profit? News wasn't what happened in Hollywood; news wasn't the World Series or the Super Bowl. News (by which Wallingford meant real news—that is, in-depth coverage) shouldn't have to compete for ratings with comedies or so-called dramas.

Patrick Wallingford was still working for one of the major networks when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Patrick was thrilled to be in Germany on such a historic occasion, but the pieces he filed from Berlin were continually edited down—sometimes to half the length he felt they deserved. A CEO in the New York newsroom said to Wallingford: "Any news in the foreign-policy category is worth shit."

When this same network's overseas bureaus began closing, Patrick made the move that other TV journalists have made. He went to work for an all-news network; it was not a very good network, but at least it was a twenty-four-hour international news channel.

Was Wallingford naïve enough to think that an all-news network wouldn't keep an eye on its ratings? In fact, the international channel was overfond of minute-by-minute ratings that could pinpoint when the attention of the television audience waxed or waned.

Yet there was cautious consensus among Wallingford's colleagues in the media that he seemed destined to be an anchor. He was inarguably handsome—the sharp features of his face were perfect for television—and he'd paid his dues as a field reporter. Funnily enough, the enmity of Wallingford's wife was chief among his costs.

She was his ex-wife now. He blamed the travel, but his then-wife's assertion was that other women were the problem. In truth, Patrick was drawn to first-time sexual encounters, and he would remain drawn to them, whether he traveled or not.

Just prior to Patrick's accident, there'd been a paternity suit against him. Although the case was dismissed—a DNA test was negative—the mere allegation of his paternity raised the rancor of Wallingford's wife. Beyond her then-husband's flagrant infidelity, she had an additional reason to be upset. Although she'd long wanted to have children, Patrick had steadfastly refused. (Again he blamed the travel.)

Now Wallingford's ex-wife—her name was Marilyn—was wont to say that she wished her ex-husband had lost more than his left hand. She'd quickly remarried, had got pregnant, had had a child; then she'd divorced again. Marilyn would also say that the pain of childbirth—notwithstanding how long she'd looked forward to having a child—was greater than the pain Patrick had experienced in losing his left hand.

Patrick Wallingford was not an angry man; a usually even-tempered disposition was as much his trademark as his drop-dead good looks. Yet the pain of losing his left hand was Wallingford's most fiercely guarded possession. It infuriated him that his ex-wife trivialized his pain by declaring it less than hers in "merely," as he was wont to say, giving birth.

Nor was Wallingford always even-tempered in response to his ex-wife's proclamation that he was an addicted womanizer. In Patrick's opinion, he had never womanized. This meant that Wallingford didn't seduce women; he simply allowed himself to be seduced. He never called them—they called him. He was the boy equivalent of the girl who couldn't say no—emphasis, his ex-wife would say, on boy. (Patrick had been in his late twenties, going on thirty, when his then-wife divorced him, but, according to Marilyn, he was permanently a boy.)

The anchor chair, for which he'd seemed destined, still eluded him. And after the accident, Wallingford's prospects dimmed. Some CEO cited "the squeamish factor." Who wants to watch their morning or their evening news telecast by some loser-victim type who's had his hand chomped off by a hungry lion? It may have been a less-than-thirty-second event—the entire story ran only three minutes—but no one with a television set had missed it. For a couple of weeks, it was on the tube repeatedly, worldwide.

Wallingford was in India. His all-news network, which, because of its penchant for the catastrophic, was often referred to by the snobs in the media elite as "Disaster International," or the "calamity channel," had sent him to the site of an Indian circus in Gujarat. (No sensible news network would have sent a field reporter from New York to a circus in India.)

The Great Ganesh Circus was performing in Junagadh, and one of their trapeze artists, a young woman, had fallen. She was renowned for "flying"—as the work of such aerialists is called—without a safety net, and while she was not killed in the fall, which was from a height of eighty feet, her husband/trainer had been killed when he attempted to catch her. Although her plummeting body killed him, he managed to break her fall.

The Indian government instantly declared no more flying without a net, and the Great Ganesh, among other small circuses in India, protested the ruling. For years, a certain government minister—an overzealous animal-rights activist—had been trying to ban the use of animals in Indian circuses, and for this reason the circuses were sensitive to government interference of any kind. Besides—as the excitable ringmaster of the Great Ganesh Circus told Patrick Wallingford, on-camera—the audiences packed the tent every afternoon and night because the trapeze artists didn't use a net.

What Wallingford had noticed was that the nets themselves were in shocking disrepair. From where Patrick stood on the dry, hard-packed earth—on the "floor" of the tent, looking up—he saw that the pattern of holes was ragged and torn. The damaged net resembled a colossal spiderweb that had been wrecked by a panicked bird. It was doubtful that the net could support the weight of a falling child, much less that of an adult.

Many of the performers were children, and these mostly girls. Their parents had sold them to the circus so they could have a better (meaning a safer) life. Yet the element of risk in the Great Ganesh was huge. The excitable ringmaster had told the truth: the audiences packed the tent every afternoon and night to see accidents happen. And often the victims of these accidents were children. As performers, they were talented amateurs—good little athletes—but they were spottily trained.

Why most of the children were girls was a subject any good journalist would have been interested in, and Wallingford—whether or not one believed his ex-wife's assessment of his character—was a good journalist. His intelligence lay chiefly in his powers of observation, and television had taught him the importance of quickly jumping ahead to what might go wrong.

The jumping-ahead part was both what was brilliant about and what was wrong with television. TV was driven by crises, not causes. What chiefly disappointed Patrick about his field assignments for the all-news network was how common it was to miss or ignore a more important story. For example, the majority of the child performers in an Indian circus were girls because their parents had not wanted them to become prostitutes; at worst, the boys not sold to a circus would become beggars. (Or they would starve.)

But that wasn't the story Patrick Wallingford had been sent to India to report. A trapeze artist, a grown woman hurtling downward from eighty feet, had landed in her husband's arms and killed him. The Indian government had intervened—the result being that every circus in India was protesting the ruling that their aerialists now had to use a net. Even the recently widowed trapeze artist, the woman who'd fallen, joined in the protest.

Wallingford had interviewed her in the hospital, where she was recovering from a broken hip and some nonspecific damage to her spleen; she told him that flying without a safety net was what made the flying special. Certainly she would mourn her late husband, but her husband had been an aerialist, too—he'd also fallen and had survived his fall. Yet possibly, his widow implied, he'd not really escaped that first mistake; her falling on him had conceivably signified the true conclusion of the earlier, unfinished episode.

Now that was interesting, Wallingford thought, but his news editor, who was cordially despised by everyone, was disappointed in the interview. And all the people in the newsroom in New York thought that the widowed trapeze artist had seemed "too calm"; they preferred their disaster victims to be hysterical....

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Fourth Hand 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It took me less than 24 hours to read this novel. I was deeply affected by the emptiness is most of the characters lives. The novel was shocking and bare, I thought it was great. I, admitedly, felt cheated in the middle of the book when time seemed to be rushed a bit, and in the last third of the book where Dr. Zajac's storyline ended. Before reading the novel, I read most of the online reviews, which usually I rely heavily upon. This time I'm glad I decided to read the book anyway. Like I said in the headline, if this is what the other reviewer's call Irving's 'worst' book, then I can't wait until I read some of the more recommended of Irving's novels.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to admit, as a John Irving fan, this is not his best book. But the reason I am recommending this book and the reason why I do really like this novel is because there are some really important life lessons to be learned from reading this novel. The story is a quirky, entertaining, and a little unbelieveable, but the characters are complicated, real, quirky and enchanting. If you are looking for a great John Irving book to read, I suggest The World According to Garp.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this title to be enjoyable, it is not by any means, Irving's best novel, but it is still good. It is extremely interesting, the characters are interesting and compelling. I flew through this book and had no problem getting through it. I enjoyed the commentary on the manipulation of truth in TV News programs, Irving's points are well thought out. If this wasn't Irving then it would be a good book, but from Irving its not his best. If you're an Irving fan, read it--judge it for yourself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An entertaining and witty book. Although I had difficulty identifying with Patrick and Doris in the beginning, the author successfully develops the plot making them credible in the end. The supporting roles of Dr. Zajac, Irma, Angie, and, last but not least, Medea are worthy of an Oscar.
JimRGill2012 More than 1 year ago
I know that John Irving is a human being. I’ve seen him in person; therefore I know that he is human, which is to say, flawed. I accept that. What I have not accepted—until reading “The Fourth Hand”—is that he is a flawed writer. As a MASSIVE John Irving fan, I have genuinely loved every novel he published prior to this one, from the middle-aged suburban angst of “The 158-Pound Marriage” to the exotic lunacy of “A Son of the Circus” (which required three attempts before I could actually even make it past page 50 or so). Most of Irving’s novels are saturated in his signature style, which is one of the features that I positively love about an Irving novel. But this one, well, it’s certainly not his best effort. It lacks his style and tone. If I hadn’t read his name on the front cover of the book, I would have had a difficult time believing that he is the author. The protagonist, although he does experience some redemption and growth throughout this relatively brief—for Irving—novel, is just not very likeable. Perhaps that was Irving’s point—he’s a TV news personality who’s lost his left hand in a bizarre lion attack, and that odd fate makes him more curious than sympathetic. He falls in love with the woman who donates her recently deceased husband’s hand as a transplant. And bizarre romantic lunacy ensues. Or maybe it was supposed to.  And that’s just it—in an Irving novel, a huge part of the enjoyment of the story is going along for the narrative ride. Although it’s usually impossible to tell where Irving is going with a story, I have always been confident that he knew what he was doing, and I was truly comfortable ceding narrative vision to him as a master storyteller. That vision is absent from “The Fourth Hand.” It pains me to say that this is the first John Irving novel that I do not truly love. But that will not stop me from reading the ones he’s written after this one, and the ones he’s yet to write.
comett More than 1 year ago
John Irving has been a gifted story-teller since the early 70s and remains true to form with his wonderful novel, THE FOURTH HAND (2001). His characters in this and other stories frequently fall outside the so-called mainstream, yet are so well developed that readers can easily sympathize with their plight. The central character, Patrick Wallingford, a New York based journalist with a sensationalist news network has his left hand bitten off by a lion while covering a circus in India. Dr Nicholas Zajac, a renowned Boston hand surgeon played lacrosse during his prep school and Amherst days. He has an aversion for dog feces and is often found along the shores of the Charles scooping up theses turds with his lacrosse stick and firing them at unsuspecting rowers. Finally, Doris Clausen, a Wisconsin housewife employed in the Green Bay Packers ticket office, seeks out Dr Zajac, who in turn contacts Wallingford, because she wants to donate her thirty-nine year old husband's left hand to the unfortunate journalist. All of these characters are sympathetic in their own way. Wallingford is a very nice, sexually active, and generally obliging ladies' man who goes with the flow. It is interesting that all of his friends are women, several of whom (his ex-wife included) are older than he. Dr Zajac is a conscientious and loving divorced father, as well as a master at his craft, and Doris Clausen wants more than anything to have a child. She is loved and adored by her husband and his extended family, well regarded by her colleagues at work, and very different from the more urban personalities in Patrick Wallingford's social milieu. This novel includes a brief, albeit serious, conversation about abortion in a Cambridge hotel room, it satirizes feminists, particularly during a women's conference in Tokyo, and it chides the media (and public) for their obsession with the sensational, sadly at the expense of serious news. But all of this aside, one comes away from this novel believing that Irving has no agenda other than to spin a good yarn. The absence of all-pervasive sociopolitical moralizing is very refreshing indeed. Finally, one trademark of a good story is having a central character pursue a challenging, if not unattainable, love interest. THE FOURTH HAND meets this litmus test. In spite of everything, it is ultimately a feel good novel, which is highly recommended and very deserving of five stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've been a big fan of Irving since The World According to Garp. But this is bay far the least interesting book so far from an otherwise great writer. But even a so-so Irving book gets 3 stars.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
John Irving is one of my favorite authors and I have loved all his books until now. Although "The Fourth Hand" is still masterfully written in the John Irving style seen throughout all his novels, this book completely lacks a plot. I kept waiting for something significant to happen but to no avail. Even though the characters were well described, they never came together to create a story. I was so disappointed that John Irving could produce such a poor novel. If you are looking to read a John Irving book, this is not the one, it's not even comparable to A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp or Cider House Rules.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was my first John Irving. The book, especially the first chapter was extremely humorous. The imagery Irving uses, combined with his sarcasm makes fro a laugh out loud experience. Nonetheless, after reading the Hotel New Hampshire, I unfortunately realize how dry the plot of The Fourth Hand was. In addition, the speakers cynical attitude was funny, yet disheartening. Still, a great read, if your up fro a laugh.