Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review:The Fourth Hand, by John Irving

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader some years ago.

Reviews of John Irving's The Fourth Hand have been neither excessively enthusiastic, nor particularly hostile. Reviewers seem to feel that reading this book is like déjà vu all over again. The details may be different, but in essence Irving is once again doing the kind of thing he has done before, and though he does it well, perhaps it would be a good idea to expand horizons. Now while there is some truth to this, it is also true that once an artist finds his voice, his world, his corner of the universe, there is some virtue in continuing to explore it. The problem with the novel is less with universe Irving chooses to explore, than it is with the conclusion that exploration leads to.

What is best about The Fourth Hand is that it once again delivers what reader's of Irving's previous nine novels have come to expect from this chronicler of weird and the grotesque. Irving has never been one to concern himself with "normal" people in normal situations preferring instead sexually modified football players, dwarfish instruments of God and philandering writers of children's books. Middle aged women have affairs with sixteen year olds. Accidental castrations punish illicit sexual acts. Women are constantly looking to males as nothing more than breeding studs. What his work may lack in conventional realism it makes up for in imagination. While some might argue that Irving's appeal is the appeal of the side show freak, Irving would disagree.

As his hero, Patrick Wallingford, a reporter for a sensationalistic all news TV network, the hero of The Fourth Hand discovers after his left hand has been bitten off by a lion: "He'd once been a faintly mocking commentator on the kind of calamity that had befallen him; he'd heretofore behaved as if there was less sympathy for the bizarre death, the bizarre loss, the bizarre grief, simply because they were bizarre. He knew now that the bizarre was commonplace, hence not bizarre at all. It was all death, all loss all grief - no matter how stupid." For Irving the grotesque is the norm, and when he is at his best, he manages to convince us that he's right.

We are willing to suspend disbelief and run along with a compulsively thin marathoning hand doctor as he plays dog turd lacrosse. We are willing to accept a married woman who, unable to conceive, convinces her husband to donate his hand for a transplant in the hopes that the recipient will prove more fertile. We are willing to buy into a whole supporting cast of oddities: a doorman named Vlad or Vlade or Lewis who insists that Patrick is the right fielder for the New York Yankees, an aging feminist grandmother that jumps into Patrick's bed, a lovable gum chewing make up girl who leaves phone numbers for her family to reach her during a night of passion, not to mention the dog named Medea.

It is this ability to portray the normality of the weird that is the hallmark of Irving's work. His novels transport the reader to an alien world where people's behavior is somewhat askew, yet when all is said and done their fears and desires are not much different from our own. Irving's characters may go about getting what they want in strange ways, but what they want is the same thing we all want.

But in this case that virtue may well be the source of the novel's less than stellar reception. Because in The Fourth hand, what the characters want, what they look to as the solution to the quirks and tics of their existences, what the world needs now is. . . .you guessed it. It is too easy to confuse the normal and the trite.

Given the bizarre relationship between the characters such a patently formulaic insight may seem at best a disappointment, at worst a cop out. Even if true, it smacks too much of popular music. You can hear John and Paul, George and Ringo humming in the background. We've heard it too many times before. Even the ending-- "Outside their warm hotel, the cold wind was a harbinger of the coming winter, but they heard only their own harsh breathing. Like other lovers, they were oblivious to the swirling wind, which blew on and on in the wild, uncaring Wisconsin night." seems familiar. Compare it with Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":

Ah, love let us be true To one another! For the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . . .

Now while the relationship pictured at the end of Irving's novel is literally not without its element of grotesquerie, there is still the feeling that we've heard it before.

There is some attempt at satire in the book. The Fourth Hand pokes fun at "all news, all day television" and its lack of interest in anything but the disaster du jour. It slaps out at medical ethicists and transplant politics. It even points a finger at the American passion for football, face painting and cheeseheads. But in the end these things seem tacked on and are not really central to the novel. The book is not social satire.

In the end despite its flaws, perhaps even because of them, the book reads like an express. It is hard to put it down. In truth, if you like John Irving's work, you'll like this book. If you haven't liked John Irving's work, The Fourth Hand won't covert you. If you';ve never read John Irving, start with Garp.

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