The Wizard Of Oddities

John Irving's "The Fourth Hand" manages to be both entertaining and unpleasant: you turn the pages faster and faster, in part because you're dying for it to be over. The novel concerns a bland, studly TV reporter named Patrick Wallingford. Wallingford deplores the crass, ratings-driven news business but can't seem to climb out of a rut doing cheesy disaster segments for a lame 24-hour news network. Then, as if in punishment for his lack of moral courage, he becomes a disaster segment himself: circus lions eat his left hand on live TV.

What follows is a pretty standard Irving romp about crisscrossing destinies. This particular romp, though, is polluted by the author's snide portrayal of the female characters, who are almost universally manipulative and shrewish. The women in Wallingford's life are all desperate to have a baby with him--or to chop off something other than his hand. There's Wallingford's wife, who dumps him after the accident, saying, "Missing a hand... you're nothing but a helpless cripple!" There's his cutthroat colleague Mary, who wants his sperm and his job. And there's a dull Wisconsin widow named Mrs. Clausen, who's clearly intended to be the novel's heroine, even though she's plainly nuts. Mrs. Clausen mounts Wallingford the first time they meet--like Mary, she's ovulating and hellbent on conceiving--and then donates her late husband's hand to him on the condition that she get to visit it once in a while.

Irving's novels are often crowded, but here he's like an air-traffic controller with 20 planes in the air and no idea which one to land next. (He devotes far too much time to Wallingford's eccentric hand surgeon, and to the cliched women in his life: a vicious, overweight ex-wife and a young girlfriend, whom Irving describes as "an instant erection machine.") As "The Fourth Hand" unfolds, there's some funny high jinks and human comedy. Wallingford falls for Mrs. Clausen, and attempts to grow a soul. Still, he never quite grows a personality. Ultimately, he's far too much of a stick figure to carry this messy novel on his back. Irving has smart, if obvious, things to say about TV news--his tirade against the hyperbolic, wall-to-wall coverage of JFK Jr.'s death is certainly on the money. Time was when he had something to say about people.