A Sound of One Hand Clapping

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John Irving's new novel proves disappointing

A handsome american tv journalist named Patrick Wallingford is covering a story at the Great Ganesh Circus in Junagadh, India, when his left hand is chewed off by a famished lion. The accident, caught on tape and rebroadcast repeatedly by Wallingford's all-news cable network, makes the victim luridly famous and an object of sympathy to millions of female viewers. One of them, Doris Clausen of Green Bay, Wisconsin, goes so far as to offer her husband Otto's left hand, in the event of his death, as a replacement for Wallingford's. Sure enough, Otto accidentally shoots himself dead on the night of the 1998 Super Bowl, and his hand is flown to Boston where a brilliant surgeon transplants it to Wallingford's left forearm. With the hand comes the grieving widow, who has some interesting plans of her own for the lucky recipient.

In other words, yup, here comes a new John Irving novel. The Fourth Hand (Bloomsbury; 316 pages), though somewhat shorter than most of its nine predecessors, offers the same mix of the macabre and the moral that Irving's army of admirers has come to expect. For the loss of his hand isn't Wallingford's principal problem. His extraordinary good looks have rendered him vain and shallow. As one of his countless lovers tells him, "It's been flattering, for a while, to be with a man who can so thoroughly lose himself in a woman. On the other hand, there's so little you in you that I suspect you could lose yourself in any woman." Never mind whether Wallingford's hand transplant will succeed. Can he become a better person?

Irving clearly intends an affirmative answer to this question, although the evidence he offers on this point is far from conclusive. Quite late in the novel he is still calling his hero "vapid" and "eternally insipid," judgments that seem, unfortunately, pretty close to the mark.

Faced with a virtual cipher at the center of his tale, Irving works energetically to create distractions around the edges. He has some good fun ridiculing Wallingford's employer, calling the all-news outfit "Disaster International" and the "calamity channel," and he does a lively riff on the marathon coverage that followed John F. Kennedy Jr.'s fatal plane crash in July 1999. After a while, though, all this mockery of the excesses of TV news begins to seem a fish-in-the-barrel (or a carp-in-the-teacup) sort of enterprise.

What is worse, Irving keeps interrupting his narrative with little parenthetical explanations. About one of Wallingford's girlfriends: "She had problems with men, or at least she thought she had. (Same difference.)" About film footage of Jackie Kennedy: "She looks so young, Wallingford thought. (She was young-it was 1961!)." Irving has always been a generous author, but here his constant fussing to make sure that the reader is comfortable and picking up every single nuance grows wearisome. Hush, please, we're trying to read!