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Review: Irving's 'Hand' should be slapped

"The Fourth Hand"
By John Irving
Random House
313 pages

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- In order to be a writer nowadays, you don't have to actually write. There are computer programs on the market that will do your writing for you. For a hundred bucks or so, the program will offer plot suggestions, ideas for dialogue, and a variety of "rules" to follow in order to make your novel the blockbuster bestseller all the publishers are panting for.

I wonder if John Irving used one of these programs to write "The Fourth Hand."

Oh, the book sounds a lot like Irving. It's got the offbeat characters, sexual fixations, and coincidence/destiny undercurrent most of his books have. It even has an intriguing storyline, featuring a callow TV reporter who loses his hand in a horrific accident live on-air, an eccentric Wisconsin woman who wants to donate her husband's hand to the reporter, and an arrogant Boston hand surgeon.

But it doesn't read like a John Irving book. Whether they're first-rate -- "The World According to Garp," "A Prayer for Owen Meany" -- or somewhat flawed -- "The Hotel New Hampshire," "A Widow for One Year" -- Irving's books are linked by his powerful storytelling talent, which carries the reader over whatever disbelief he or she may have for his characters or coincidences. That talent isn't in evidence in "The Fourth Hand." The book feels like it was created by a John Irving machine, with all the parts but no emotion or soul.

Empty characters

The plot of "The Fourth Hand" concerns Patrick Wallingford, a reporter for a low-rent all-news TV network who loses his hand to a lion while covering a circus in India. Wallingford isn't the brightest of bulbs. Good-looking but shallow, he sleeps with any woman who propositions him and fails to see the consequences of his actions. He is a child who is unwilling, or unable, to grow up.

The accident, however, forces him into the limelight. Suddenly he's "the lion guy" to a world that has watched the incessant airing of the mauling video. Wallingford soon undergoes the first hand transplant in United States history, becoming the patient of Dr. Nicholas Zajac, a brooding Boston hand surgeon who connects Wallingford's forearm to the hand of the late Otto Clausen of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Otto's wife, Doris, had sent Zajac a letter offering her husband's hand while Otto was still alive and healthy; in a typical Irving twist, the hand becomes available when he accidentally shoots himself while sitting in his beer truck on Super Bowl Sunday. Wallingford impregnates Doris at her request, falls in love with her, and spends 200 pages pursuing her, attempting to grow up along the way.

Strange material, to be sure, but it wouldn't be the first time Irving has worked with strange material. Part of the problem with "The Fourth Hand," however, is that he can't make it work.

John Irving
Many of Irving's novels have been made into movies, the latest being "Cider House Rules"  

Characters change without apparent motivation. The divorced Dr. Zajac, for example, is trying to win over his estranged and withdrawn son, and has an affair with his housekeeper, whom he eventually marries. These things just happen; Irving simply tells us that the son starts responding to Zajac's overtures, that Zajac and the housekeeper fall in love, and that is that. There is no emotion, no connection, no getting inside these characters' heads: They are blank, two-dimensional puppets. And, if anything, secondary characters -- Zajac's ex-wife, his surgical partners, the women in Wallingford's office -- are even emptier.

Annoying asides

Perhaps Irving thought he was writing a children's book, because he certainly treats the reader like a child. He often interrupts paragraphs with patronizing asides -- lines like "Clearly we need to know more about Dr. Zajac," and "We can only guess what a medical ethicist might have thought of that."

More annoying is Irving's tendency to explain and editorialize. Doris is an employee and fan of the Green Bay Packers, which prompts Irving to stop the book cold on occasion to elucidate details of Packer history. The examples are described uninterestingly, and add little to Doris' character.

Meanwhile, Wallingford's employment with an all-news network gives Irving opportunity to rant about the media's fixation on tragedy, such as the wall-to-wall coverage given John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death. These are fine subjects for an essay, but in "The Fourth Hand," they come off as the invective of a crank and slow the book to a crawl.

As the book stumbles toward its climax, Wallingford becomes enraptured with E.B. White's children's books, "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little," as well as Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient." He hopes to impress Doris by connecting with her through these literary works. One hopes that a romantically inclined reader doesn't do the same with "The Fourth Hand."

However, Irving could probably make a mint selling his template to a software publisher.

• Random House: John Irving

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