Ever since "The World According to Garp," John Irving has been one of my favorite philosophers. His work in "The Fourth Hand" has not caused me to change my mind. Irving's ability to create funny and three-dimensional characters, while making thoughtful commentary on the human condition, is unparalleled in modern literature. Patrick Wallingford, Irving's mutilated protagonist, is a shallow, womanizing pretty-boy who, nevertheless, grows as a person before our eyes. The woman who becomes the love of his life, Doris Clausen, is good hearted and sexy, but preternaturally weird.
Nobody does set pieces that are both funny and poignant, and full of both bitterness and love, than Irving. He does it again here. His description of Wallingford's tryst with a gum-chewing makeup girl, and its attendant complications, is worth the price of the book. Irving's side of the mouth dismissal of cable news as shallow, callous, insincere, and intrusive is right on the mark, too, it seems to me.
Irving's usual devices, maiming, violent death, the love of a child, wild animals (lions this time, not bears) and circuses are in evidence here. Nobody understands the chaos that is life better than Irving, but his optimism and his obvious love for his characters make that recognition fun and instructive, not off-putting.
I heard this book on tape. Jason Culp, who reads this audio book is very effective. Finally, I give this Irving outing 4 stars out of 5 instead of 5 out of 5 only because of his obsession with Wallingford's hand. Although Irving has used traumatic amputations in other books, they have never before been the central theme of any one of them, as is the case in "The Fourth Hand." In fact, it is for this reason that I (uncharacteristically for a John Irving novel) waited as long as I did to read it. I highly recommended it, anyway.