John Irving has to be one of the most gifted writers, creating unique characters that can never be forgotten, and he does it once again with The Fourth Hand.
Our main character is Patrick Wallingford, a very unusual person and certifiably doomed in that Irving way. And while Irving’s past books may have roared from start to finish, The Fourth Hand does the same right up to the last fifty pages or so, where it slows to a crawl, and everyone conveniently lives happily ever after.
Patrick Wallingford has his hand bitten off by a lion in India while doing a segment for an American news channel. He wants to get as close as possible to all the action, since that is his job, and ends up losing his right hand instead. A few years later, after a successful website advertising the need for a donor hand to test a new hand transplant technology, a donor gives one, having recently committed suicide. The wife of the donor, Doris Clausen, flies to Massachusetts with the hand where she wants to “certify” the receiver.
Sadly, it does not stick, and after six months the hand needs to be removed. Nevertheless, a strange fourth, phantom hand seems to remain that Wallingford swears he really feels, especially when he gets excited. At the same time, a relationship develops between Wallingford and Clausen: she sort of falls in love with for he once “held” all that remained of her husband, while he is besotted with her, but is unable to realize how important she is to him.
The result is a very strange yet extremely entertaining novel that contacts a cast of fantastic characters brought to life through the zany and perverted mind of John Irving.
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Originally published on February 4th 2002.
Originally published in the Long Beach Union.
I’m just about to reach the halfway point of reading Last Night in Twisted River; John Irving’s latest release. Knowing how Irving works in writing and constructing his novels — starting with the ending, planning out the entire book, then writing the whole thing, and then spending literally years editing it to perfection — I was a little surprised with Last Night in Twisted River. It begins with a long opening chapter on the history of logging in New England and the different types of people that do it, and the type of work that is done, the sort of accidents that can happen, which would be perfectly fine for any novel, but with John Irving, he has a very specific style and way with his characters, which didn’t show itself until the second chapter, when all of a sudden it was like: “Ahh, here’s the John Irving I know.”
After getting deeper into the book, I can’t help but feel like the first chapter felt like a clear “set-up piece” for the book, which is very common in writing where you begin a story or a book and you need to set the scene and get the ball rolling to start the whole thing off, then you find your place, pace, and rhythm, but once you go to editing, all this early, set-up stuff is usually cut out. That’s what the first chapter felt like to me: something that should’ve been lost at the editing stages. And for a writer who spends actual years editing his novels, I was surprised that this first chapter stayed, and apparently there was something in it that I missed, and that made Irving keep it.
As for the rest of the book so far, I’m certainly enjoying it, and it’s definitely better than Until I Find You (which was just too much), and the terrible thing known as The Fourth Hand. It is feeling a little unoriginal in that Irving is pulling from The World According to Garp with his main writer character writing about his life, and from A Prayer From Owen Meaney in that the main character is going to be a writer, and the omniscient narrator likes to point this out with beating-over-the-head foreshadowing and set up. I didn’t enjoy this with Owen Meaney, but I know many other readers did and it’s their favorite Irving book. (Mine’s The Cider House Rules).
But I’m not making any solid and certain decisions about the book yet until I make it to the last page, because there’s still a lot of story and manuscript to be read.
At the moment, it’s a decent Irving novel, but not one of his best.