Although John Irving’s The Fourth Hand resembles his earlier novels in its treatment of the themes of family, marriage, love, sex, loss, and redemption, it differs from them in its relative brevity (about half the length of Irving’s other books) and in its style. Both differences may be attributed to Irving’s having written the Oscar-winning screenplay of his novel The Cider House Rules (1985); The Fourth Hand is dedicated to the producer and director of the highly acclaimed film. He also signed on with Miramax to write the screenplay for The Fourth Hand, which may explain why some reviewers have described the novel as a kind of screenplay. When he finished The Fourth Hand, his next project was an original screenplay.
The Fourth Hand begins in spectacular fashion with Patrick Wallingford, the protagonist, losing his hand to a hungry, caged lion at a tawdry circus in India. Wallingford, a field reporter for a television network aptly described as the “disaster network,” is working on a story about acrobats falling to their deaths when the accident, which is captured live by his dedicated but unhelpful cameraman, occurs. The three-minute sequence is aired repeatedly and establishes Wallingford as “the lion guy.” Despite the loss of his hand, Wallingford, who is a bland, amoral mediocrity with “drop-dead” looks, retains his appeal for women. Recently divorced because of his philandering and a paternity suit, Wallingford proceeds to have sex with several women, some of whom want to have his child.
In order to ease Wallingford’s pain, Dr. Clothia, an Indian physician, administers a pill, banned in the United States and about to be banned in India, which not only dulls the pain but also stimulates his sexual powers and, most important, enables him to see into the future. This “prescience” pill produces the dream that Wallingford will periodically reexperience and then finally realize at the end of the novel, and it also introduces a kind of fairy-tale motif not uncommon in Irving’s novels. The dream, which features wet bathing suits, two rings, and the sound of lapping water, will take form at a lake in Wisconsin, where he goes with Doris Clausen, the woman who will make him whole and redeem him.
The subplot of the novel involves Dr. Nicholas M. Zajak, a Boston hand surgeon who treats celebrities. While the book opens with violence and mutilation, it proceeds with some grotesque and obscene humor, another trademark Irving blend. Zajak, who is pitifully undernourished, uses his lacrosse stick to hurl dog feces at the rowers on the Charles River in Cambridge. Also divorced, Zajak is intent on winning the love of his equally underfed son, Rudy, whom his bitchy mother is turning against him. Zajak’s ex-wife also gives Rudy a dog named Medea, who shares Zajak’s obsession with feces; Medea eats her own. Irma, Zajak’s housekeeper, performs the same function for him that Doris performs for Wallingford. After falling in love with Zajak, Irma embarks on a health food diet and a running and workout program which give her a body that Zajak cannot help noticing. Under Irma’s guidance, Zajak is redeemed, his relationship with Rudy is mended, and Medea mends her ways.
Zajak, intent on performing the first hand transplant, and Wallingford, intent on having a new hand, are, in Irving’s words, “on a collision course which didn’t bode well from the start.” Perhaps because of Wallingford’s notoriety, he is the first choice of Zajak’s surgical team, and Zajak also has had a response to his notice on www.needahand.com from Doris Clausen, who has seen the broadcasts of Wallingford’s accident and promises him her husband’s left hand, although Otto is very much alive. Coincidentally and providentially, an inebriated Otto, despondent at a Green Bay Packers’ loss, soon accidentally shoots himself and dies. (Before his death he, too, has a dream, one in which Doris is making love to Wallingford.) Informed of her husband’s death, Doris asks, “But how is Otto’s hand?” The childless Doris flies to Boston...
(The entire section is 1680 words.)