Irving's latest is such a circus that readers can't tell lions from clowns

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John Irving's strange stories are always poorly served by summary, but "The Fourth Hand" is particularly vulnerable.

It's about a television journalist whose left hand is bitten off by a lion while he's interviewing a trapeze artist who survived an 80-foot drop by landing on (and killing) her husband.

The novel's problems are more severe.

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Millions of people around the world watched Patrick Wallingford - live! - lose his hand in India. Millions more have seen the famous episode in roundups of TV's greatest moments. Appropriately, "the lion guy," as he's known, works for a 24-hour news show that specializes in bizarre deaths and gruesome accidents, a sort of round-the-clock John Irving channel.

Much of "The Fourth Hand" reads like a parody of misogynist preoccupations. Patrick is a devastatingly good-looking man in a world of tricky, manipulative women. "He initiated nothing," we're told, "yet he inspired sexual unrest and unnatural longing.... He was a magnet to women of all ages and types," particularly the conniving, baby-desperate types who populate this novel. (There's even a dog called "Medea.")

Poor handsome Patrick suffers through sexual escapades with one aggressive woman after another. "He simply allowed himself to be seduced. He was the boy equivalent of the girl who couldn't say no." Sometimes this results in scenes that are grotesquely funny. Other times it's merely grotesque. (The novel's title comes from a particularly morbid sexual encounter.)

The front of the novel involves a long detour about a peculiar doctor who manages to attach a new hand to Patrick's wrist. Dr. Nicholas M. Zajac is a hand surgeon to the stars. He's also obsessed with dog feces, which he searches for relentlessly along the Charles River in Boston with a lacrosse stick. (Rowers, beware!)

Some of the novel's best comedy involves Dr. Zajac's halting efforts to befriend his little boy, against the wishes of his (naturally) wicked ex-wife. Unfortunately, he fades away after a few hysterical chapters, but not before setting up a website for potential hand donors and recipients: www.needahand.com.

One of the people who contacts him is Doris Clausen. She's not volunteering her own hand, but the hand of her beloved husband, a young man who has every intention of using it for a long, long time.

As fate would have it, though, Mr. Clausen accidentally shoots himself, a tragedy that Mrs. Clausen's prescient planning renders particularly useful to Patrick Wallingford and the fame-hungry Dr. Zajac.

Her only conditions are regular visitation rights (yes, with the hand) and the opportunity to bear Patrick's baby.Like everyone else in this novel, even the lions, she wants him.

Patrick Wallingford may have lost his hand, but the novel loses its way. The last third shifts to Patrick's courtship of Doris Clausen. Irving announces ex cathedra that Patrick Wallingford had "gained a soul," but in life and fiction that's an acquisition better shown than proclaimed.

Nevertheless, the absurd tone evaporates, and we're left with a tender, sentimental story about a man falling in love with his baby son in a lakeside cabin. (Bring back the lacrosse stick!)

These parts of the novel seem unnaturally grafted together. Patrick is a philanderer spared the effects of his lifestyle only by Irving's fawning affection for him. Doris may be a sweet mother, but she volunteered her husband's hand just before he "accidentally" died. Having begun as puppets in a sex farce, it's difficult to accept their magical transformation into sensitive characters.

The only consistent element in the story is its satire of how television journalism markets grief as recycled melodrama. Unfortunately, the lack of originality here is emphasized by the story's reenactment of the media circus around the death of John Kennedy Jr. in 1999.

Criticizing journalists for their macabre obsession with the Kennedy tragedy is like shooting cliches in a barrel; it's a presatirized subject. Patrick's moral superiority on this point sounds particularly sanctimonious - another symptom of the author's efforts to excuse his flaws as boyish indiscretions while emphasizing his enlightened vision in a corrupt industry.

It may be that the world has caught up with Irving and rendered his strange tales oddly second-hand.

As both a freak accident victim and the world's most famous interviewer of freak accident victims, Patrick thinks, "The bizarre was commonplace, hence not bizarre at all."

That may not be true in real life, but it's entirely true in the world according to Irving. There are moments of hilarity here, even moments of oddly moving tenderness, but they don't add up. It's the sound of one hand clapping.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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