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    Contributors | September 15, 2015

    Mary Karr: IMG Memoir Tutorials with Mary Karr, Lena Dunham, and Gary Shteyngart

    Editor's note: It's been 20 years since the groundbreaking memoir The Liars' Club sent Mary Karr into the literary spotlight with its phenomenal... Continue »
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      The Art of Memoir

      Mary Karr 9780062223067

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2 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

The Fourth Hand


The Fourth Hand Cover



Author Q & A

Why I Wrote The Fourth Hand When I Wrote It

My sixth novel,The Cider House Rules, was published in 1985,by

which time I had already started my seventh, A Prayer for Owen

Meany.That year I also began writing the screenplay of Cider House,

for which (fifteen years later)I would win an Academy Award.But

the first draft of that screenplay was a nine-hour movie;it wouldn 't

have won anybody an Oscar.

Rewriting is what I do best as a writer.I spend more time revis-

ing a novel or a screenplay than I take to write the first raft.And

1985 marked the beginning of what has been,to date,a seventeen-

year-old habit --namely,writing at least one screenplay concurrently

with whatever novel I am writing.Nothing has helped my process

of revision more.

It sounds strange,but my novels have bene fited from my inter-

rupting them.(It 's mildly frustrating that the best time to interrupt

a novel is when it 's going well;during the novelist 's absence,a novel

that 's off to a good start only stands to get better,but a struggling

novel will become more difficult.)For two to four months,which is

about how long I need to write a draft of a screenplay,I don 't even

read my novel-in-progress --I try,with mixed results,to not even

think about it.And when I return to the novel,I invariably discover

new possibilities in the storytelling;these are things I would have

missed if I 'd been a horse with blinders on,plodding ahead on a

solitary project.

In December 1998,when I was on the film set of The Cider

House Rules, it occurred to me that I would like to write a comedy,a

comedy and a love story --a book of a kind I hadn 't written since my

second novel, The Water-Method Man, thirty years before.

That movie set,at the end of a sixty-two-day shooting schedule,

was in Northampton,Massachusetts;the interiors of the orphanage

in the film were shot in the former Massachusetts State Hospital,in

buildings that had been derelict (and unheated)for fifteen years.It

was cold,it was snowing,and the melting snow was turning to slush.

One of the children who was acting the part of an orphan had a

runny nose and a cough.It depressed me that,for more than

twenty-five years --during the writing of seven novels and the Cider

House screenplay --I had been imagining places as abandoned and

melancholic as this orphanage hospital with its ether-addicted


The wife of the narrator in The 158-Pound Marriage survives the

rape and pillage of her Austrian birthplace by hiding in the carcass

of a cow.In The World According to Garp,a famous woman is assassi-

nated by a man who hates women;her famous son is murdered by a

woman who hates men. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator

has his right index finger cut off by his best friend --to keep him

from being drafted during the Vietnam War.Later,the best friend is

killed --not in the war in Vietnam but because of it.

In A Son of the Circus, two children die and a dwarf is blown up

by a terrorist 's bomb. In A Widow for One Year, two more children

die and a prostitute is murdered --and a mother walks out on her

four-year-old daughter,not to return for thirty-five years.Such sad-

ness seemed to cry out for a comedy,if only for a change.And

wouldn 't a love story be a breath of fresh air?I thought so.

That night I drove home from the film set wanting to write

a novel that was both a comedy and a love story.It should be short,

I thought --if not a short novel by other people 's standards,at

least short for me.(Since The World According to Garp, which was

published in 1978,my novels have been long.)The problem was,

I had already started the research for another novel --another

long one.

Once in the spring of 1998,and again in the fall of that year,I

had visited Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen,

and Helsinki.The novel,which concerns the doomed relationship

between the daughter of an Edinburgh tattoo artist and a church or-

ganist who abandons her,is neither a comedy nor a love story.The

tattoo artist 's daughter becomes a tattoo artist herself;the church

organist is addicted to being tattooed.Their illegitimate son tells

the story.

Until I Find You, which I am still writing,is my first first-person

narrative since A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it was not the novel I

was thinking about as I drove home from Northampton that day.

And only a month later,in January 1999,my wife,Janet,gave me

the idea that set The Fourth Hand in motion. As I say in the Ac-

knowledgments,we were watching the news on television --a story

about the first hand-transplant surgery in the United States.Janet

wondered what would happen if the hand-donor 's widow wanted to

visit her late husband 's hand --that is,after the attachment surgery.

And there it was:a comedy and a love story,surely.In forty-eight

hours, I knew more about The Fourth Hand than I knew about the

novel I had been trying to begin for a year.I put my notes on Until I

Find You away;I wouldn 't return to that novel for three years.

The Fourth Hand starts out as a comedy --even a satire,even a

farce --and ends up as a love story.Patrick Wallingford, the hand-

recipient,is a largely comic character --at least until he falls in love

with the widow,Mrs.Clausen.Dr.Zajac,the hand-surgeon,is a

comic character,too.In the earliest chapters,the doctor and his pa-

tient are on a comedic collision course.But the real collision (be-

tween Wallingford and Mrs.Clausen)you don 't see coming,and

with it comes a change in tone.

The first,comic chapters of the novel are short;they are a jum-

ble of quick cuts,not unlike the truncated news on television,which

is Patrick Wallingford 's dissatisfying and super ficial business.The

later chapters,beginning with Mrs.Clausen 's eleventh-hour intro-

duction into the story --and especially after Wallingford loses his

left hand for the second time --are longer and slower;the narrative

reins in its hectic pace.When Wallingford falls in love with Mrs.

Clausen,the comedy vanishes and a melancholy familiar to readers

of my more recent novels creeps in.

There are love stories about people who seem "meant for "

each other;there are those couples who strike everyone as "belong-

ing "together.Not Patrick Wallingford and Mrs.Clausen.He is

careless and shallow --as vacuous as television journalists often

are --while she is thoughtful and deep.Wallingford has never grown

up;in his ex-wife 's opinion,he 's still a boy.Mrs.Clausen,on the

other hand,is very much an adult;she is emotionally and psycho-

logically complex.And,as she points out to Patrick at the end of the

novel,she 's lost more than a left hand --she 's lost a husband she

truly loved.

When Wallingford tells Mrs.Clausen that he loves her,the best

she can tell him is that she 's going to try to love him,too.He has to

accept her as she is;she is giving him what she can,which is all she

has left.For a novel with such a comic beginning, The Fourth Hand

isn 't the least bit funny at the end.The love story eclipses the

comedy,and it 's a dark and grown-up love story --a commitment

with an uncertain future.Both characters are taking a risk.

And perhaps what 's missing from The Fourth Hand is as interest-

ing as what the novel contains.In my nine other novels,the passage

of time --usually a lifetime but always a signi ficant number of

years --is as important to the story as a major character.In the other

novels,the effect of the passage of time is central to the plot.Not

much time passes in The Fourth Hand.(About five years,maybe?)

Furthermore,it is my usual practice to give at least one major char-

acter a childhood;the effect of childhood on my characters (as

adults)is also central to my story-telling.But Patrick Wallingford 's

childhood is mentioned only in passing,and Mrs.Clausen 's not at

all.(Remember:I wanted The Fourth Hand to be a relatively short


In the years I was writing the screenplay of The Cider House

Rules, I radically reduced the childhood of the main character.In the

novel, Homer Wells 's childhood is a whole chapter --the first one.

In the movie,Homer 's childhood and his several failed adoptions

are brie fly sketched in a montage that plays over the opening cred-

its.In the novel, Homer leaves the orphanage for fifteen years; in

the film, he stays away for only two .

It was screenwriting that taught me how to tell a story without

establishing the life of a main character in a childhood,and without

a signi ficant passage of time.In these two respects, The Fourth Hand

is very much a post-screenplay novel.A view from a window --not a

whole view,and not of a whole life.Three characters whose lives

cross --a doctor,his patient,and the provider of a missing body-

part.We know them only as well as people we 've known for just a

few years.

Wallingford doesn 't really need a new left hand;he can learn

to live without one.(As a medical ethicist might say,a hand is not

essential in order to live .)What Wallingford needs is a new life, a

real one.

What Mrs.Clausen wants is a baby,and she uses her late hus-

band 's hand to get one.When we see her in Dr.Zajac 's office, where

she first meets Wallingford and so forcefully seduces him,we think

(as Wallingford does)that she must be crazy.But Mrs.Clausen is

both the sanest and the saddest person in the novel;her feet are very

firmly on the ground.Theirs is a collision between a woman as

fiercely determined as American football and a man as insubstantial

(but good-looking)as his anchor role on TV news.

That day on the film set of The Cider House Rules ,I dreamed

about writing a comedy and a love story.I wanted it to be short,and

it was.I wanted it to be funny and romantic,and I think it is.But I

also wanted to escape the melancholy of so many of my novels,es-

pecially the more recent ones --and I couldn 't.From the moment I

met Mrs.Clausen,she brought her own melancholy with her.Like

the lion guy,I was irresistibly rawn to her.The Fourth Hand be-

came her story;even the title is Mrs.Clausen 's invention.She is not

to be denied.

--John Irving

Product Details

Irving, John
Ballantine Books
New York
Transplantation of organs, tissues, etc
Love stories
Television journalists
Donation of organs, tissues, etc.
Transplant surgeons
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
fiction;novel;american;literature;humor;transplants;amputation;usa;contemporary fiction;love;romance;india;journalism;transplant;contemporary;american fiction;20th century;relationships;america;2000s;surgery;us;21st century;adult;news;general fiction;circ
fiction;novel;american;literature;humor;transplants;amputation;usa;contemporary fiction;love;romance;india;journalism;transplant;contemporary;american fiction;20th century;relationships;america;surgery;21st century;us;2000s;adult;american literature;news;
Edition Number:
Reprint ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
May 2002
Grade Level:
8.18x5.48x.76 in. .61 lbs.

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The Fourth Hand Used Trade Paper
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Product details 352 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345449344 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[A] rich and deeply moving tale, and (in the best sense) vintage John Irving: a story of two very disparate people, and the strange and unexpected ways we may grow."
"Review" by , "[C]ompulsively readable....This is classic Irving....[F]or all its machismo and conflicted feelings about women, this is one crazy but sweet little love story."
"Review" by , "Irving presumably means all this to be a Dickensian fable...but it's a self-indulgent mishmash of let's-see-what-weird-things-I-can-come-up-with-next plotting and complacent commentary laid on by a very heavy, omniscient authorial, uh, hand."
"Review" by , "A blend of sexual farce, journalistic satire, and tender love story....From what at first seems bizarre, Irving builds the best kind of love story: an improbable one. Wallingford gets more than a transplanted hand; he begins to find his soul."
"Review" by , "A riveting entertainment and certainly one of the funniest novels of the year. The authoritative control of Irving's storytelling has never been more impressive....The delighted reader is powerless to look away."
"Review" by , "A beautiful story about the redemptive power of love."
"Review" by , "[A] thoroughly satisfying literary experience....Irving's most compassionate and redemptive [novel] to date....[His] mastery of characterization is unequaled in American novelists of the day."
"Review" by , "A turbocharged plot and outsized heroes and villains [who] will delight fans? In The Fourth Hand, as in his past works, [Irving] aims to tell a sweeping narrative with big, poignant themes, and he succeeds with brio."
"Synopsis" by , By turns brilliantly comic and emotionally moving, this New York Times #1 bestseller is hailed as "a riveting entertainment and certainly one of the funniest novels of the year" (Chicago Sun-Times).
"Synopsis" by , While reporting a story from India, New York journalist Patrick Wallingford inadvertently becomes his own headline when his left hand is eaten by a lion. In Boston, a renowned surgeon eagerly awaits the opportunity to perform the nations first hand transplant. But what if the donors widow demands visitation rights with the hand? In answering this unexpected question, John Irving has written a novel that is by turns brilliantly comic and emotionally moving, offering a penetrating look at the power of second chances and the will to change.
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