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Eccentrics guide `Hand'

Irving mixes bizarre, insight in entertaining novel

John Irving's newest novel begins with a detailed account of his protagonist's left hand being mauled off by a circus lion. Though a tad crude, the first chapter sets the stage perfectly for the bizarre story that unfolds in the following 300 pages.

"The Fourth Hand" seems to be a mismatched puzzle at first, assembled from a dozen different sources. Its eccentric characters form an unlikely group, and their seemingly random pairing creates unrealistic, yet highly amusing couples.

Patrick Wallingford is the ill-fated television reporter whose encounter with a lion in India is broadcast to millions of viewers, and instantly earns him the lifetime titles of "the lion guy" and "disaster man." He is also, by chance, irresistible to women and in his own quiet way addicted to casual sex.

He eventually falls in love with Doris Clausen, a rampant Green Bay Packers fan and the widow of his hand donor. In fact, the relationship forms when she insists on "visitation rights" to the hand, which belonged to her husband prior to his suicide.

Among the other quirky characters are the health-obsessed hand surgeon who performs the operation on Wallingford - and gets a supreme satisfaction from flinging dog turds into the Charles River with a lacrosse stick - his maid/lover, Wallingford's beautiful boss, the hysterical yet cunning Mary and a myriad of others whose interactions provide non-stop entertainment for readers.

Irving uses some clever techniques to tie the story together, including a mysterious and sexy recurring dream, sometimes dreamt by Wallingford, other times brought to reality at unexpected places. The theme of parenthood also arises midway through the novel, and it provides a subtle accompaniment to Wallingford's maturation after his loss.

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And perhaps most surprising of all is Irving's tie-in of E.B. White's classic children's books, which pop up at soul-searching moments and impart a wealth of insight and also aid in character development.

While "The Fourth Hand" takes itself too seriously at times, Irving does make some strong points. His blatant dislike for sensationalistic media is made obvious through Wallingford's growing contempt for his job as he becomes a more serious character. When he gets fired, there is a sense of triumph, like one being purged of a sin.

Irving researched his book very well, as evidenced in his detailed - and presumably accurate - account of media politics and his extensive knowledge of Packers' protocol and trivia.

The ending lags a bit, some may even call it disappointing, but it does not diminish the novel's overall entertainment factor. Irving has written a characteristically imaginative and insightful novel, sure to bring readers the same satisfaction as his previous works.

And, predictably enough, the rights have already been acquired by Miramax to make the film, which will be directed by Lasse Hallstrom and adapted to the screen by Irving, who received an Oscar for his screenplay of "The Cider House Rules" in 1999.

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