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MORIARTY Discusses John Irving And Reviews His New Novel THE FOURTH HAND!!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

"Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater."

- John Irving, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1976)

When I first read John Irving’s breakthrough novel, it was a mistake. Funny how that worked. I only picked the book up because I was forbidden by my parents to see MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN. If you remember, there was a vocal flap that accompanied that film’s release along the lines of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or DOGMA.

I had been exposed to the original episodes of FLYING CIRCUS by that point, and the poster for BRIAN looked like the most amazing thing ever to my much-younger eyes. In a library one summer afternoon, browsing the shelves, I happened to come across a book, the title of which somehow got all tangled up with LIFE OF BRIAN in my head. Since I was allowed to read anything I chose long before I was allowed to watch what I wanted, I checked the book out and took it home, swollen with smug satisfaction that I had circumnavigated my parents’ attempts at censorship.

As much as STAR WARS changed my concept of film entertainment, so did THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP expand my idea of what a book could be.

That first chapter, "Boston Mercy," is still one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever read. In detailing the development of Jenny Fields and her personal philosophy as well as the conception of her only son, TS Garp, the chapter is funny and sad and packed with character, a unique slice of imagination wrapped in a specific piece of history. When I think of John Irving’s gift as a writer, it’s this chapter I think of before anything else, a perfect testament to what he’s capable of in his finest moments. The book is such a love letter to the art of creation, the very process of writing, that I can’t imagine any writer not being shaken to the core by their first exposure to it.

"Though the novel was not about Helen and Garp and Harry and Alice, it was about four people whose finally unequal and sexually striving relationship is a bust.

Each person in the foursome is physically handicapped. One of the men is blind. The other man has a stutter of such monstrous proportions that his dialogue is infuriatingly difficult to read. Jenny blasted Garp for taking a cheap shot at poor departed Mr. Tinch, but writers, Garp sadly knew, were just observers – good and ruthless observers of human behavior. Garp had meant no offense to Tinch; he was just using one of Tinch’s habits."

By the time the film adaptation of GARP came out in 1982, I’d read the book five or six times, and I believed intensely in the world that Irving had described. Screenwriter Steve Tesich and director George Roy Hill managed to capture the eccentric flavor of Irving’s demented masterpiece, even if they took liberties with specific events and compressed the material. When watching the film, it felt like the world I’d envisioned. Robin Williams was an incredibly risky choice for the lead. He’d starred in Robert Altman’s disastrous musical adaptation of POPEYE in 1980, and he was actually still on MORK & MINDY, a show that was dying a slow and painful death by that point. In GARP, he’s perfectly cast, a revelation, and he convinced me that it was possible to bring Irving’s work to life onscreen.

With the recent release of GARP on DVD in a beautiful letterboxed transfer, I’ve been in an Irving mood. It’s a delight to be able to rediscover such pleasures as Irving’s cameo in the film as a wrestling ref, Glenn Close in a career-best performance as Jenny Fields, John Lithgow’s remarkable work as Roberta Muldoon, the Ellen Jamesians, the "undertoad," Helena and her gradual students, the way the film fetishizes the act of writing on old manual typewriters, Irving’s descriptions of Vienna (a hallmark of much of his earlier writing), the bruised sexuality of Mary Kay Place and Jenny Wright, and the wonderful sly sense of humor that captures all the nuance of Irving’s work.

To my great delight, just as I was really revving up to dive back in and re-read a few of Irving’s novels, a package arrived on the doorstep of the Labs featuring an advance copy of THE FOURTH HAND, his new novel set for release in July. As soon as I opened the envelope and realized what I was holding, I shut the phones off and dove in. The first thing I noticed was the book’s dedication:

"For Richard Gladstein and Lasse Hallstrom"

It’s not just a dediction, if the novel itself is anything to judge by. It’s a marker, a shift in Irving’s career, and I’m not entirely sure what I make of it yet as a long-time reader.

Irving’s last novel before this was the wonderful A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR, and it’s a classic John Irving novel in every way. It felt like a bookend to GARP, a return to certain themes and types of characters, and it showed a generosity of spirit that the younger Irving, like most young men, was incapable of expressing. It was another book about writers and writing, but instead of demonstrating the way a writer reflects life, WIDOW seemed to be about writing as life itself.

Since 1988, Irving’s only published three novels, but he’s started expanding into other forms, adapting two of his own books into script form (THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and the unproduced SON OF THE CIRCUS), writing a book about writing a screenplay that he happened to win an Oscar for, publishing a collection of odds and ends. I’ve read his script for SON OF THE CIRCUS, and it’s interesting. He’s chosen one particular storyline from his rich tapestry of a book, and he’s emphasized just that one thread. It’s as severe an adaptation of the material as Mark Steven Johnson’s SIMON BIRCH was of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, more a exploration of certain themes from the book than any sort of literal adaptation.

My first thought upon finishing THE FOURTH HAND was, That should be easy to turn into a film. If there’s any truth to the rumor that George Clooney is interested in playing the lead role of Patrick Wallingford, it should be a perfect fit. If Lasse Hallstrom and Irving manage to strike just the right tone with the material, I could even see the role netting an actor an armload of year end awards. But I was left with a nagging feeling that Irving had traded in something of his own identity with this new streamlined approach to storytelling. At just over 300 pages, this is an afternoon’s worth of reading, a quick trip that seems like just enough time to get to know such admittedly wonderful characters as Mrs. Doris Clausen, Dr. Nicholas M. Zajac, his housekeeper Irma, Mary with no last name, Angie the makeup girl, and even little Otto. For the first time in Irving’s career, I found myself unfulfilled by the journey, shortchanged.

The start of the novel is as funny as anything Irving’s written since GARP. It’s wicked and specific in the way it paints a picture of the life and habits of Patrick Wallingford, a field reporter being groomed for an eventual anchor chair on a cable network that deals primarily in tragedy. He’s a helpless womanizer, almost reflexive about it, and he’s terminally unable to form any sort of real intimacy with anyone. It’s not like it’s a problem, though. Patrick seems perfectly happy with the life he’s leading.

And then there’s the thing with the lions...

"When the lions began roaring, the cameraman zoomed in on them, and Patrick Wallingford – recognizing a moment of genuine spontaneity – extended his microphone to within reach of their cage. He got a better kicker than he’d bargained for.

A paw flicked out; a claw caught Wallingford’s left wrist. He dropped the microphone. In less than two seconds, his left arm, up to his elbow, had been snatched inside the cage. His left shoulder was slammed against the bars; his left hand, including an inch or more above his wrist, was in a lion’s mouth."

- John Irving, THE FOURTH HAND (2001)

In that moment, events are set in play that change more lives than just Patrick’s. He loses the hand completely, drawing the attention of Dr. Nicholas M. Zajac, who is looking to make his reputation by performing a successful hand transplant. He targets Patrick, makes him a project, thriving on the attention even as he struggles with his own dissolving marriage and his attempts at a relationship with his son.

Tragedy suddenly delivers a hand to Zajac and Patrick, but it comes with strings attached. Otto Clausen’s widow, Doris, agrees to let Patrick have the hand, but only if she can have visitation rights. With time being essential to the success of the operation, Patrick agrees to meet Doris and discuss her request, leading to a sexual encounter that leaves Doris pregnant and Patrick changed forever.

This is an intimate story, told as a collection of small details, and even when Irving digresses, it’s brief, like the material he includes here about the behavior of the media in the face of tragedy. He uses real events in the book to emphasize his points, like the death of JFK Jr., and in a way, it backfires. How is Irving’s exploitation of the dramatic potential of the events any different than the media’s frenzy to feed off of them? Timing? Intent? He seems to condemn the entire industry, and although I think the state of the art in broadcast journalism is nowhere near what it should be, I don’t think it’s worthless. It’s the kind of blanket attack that really surprises me coming from Irving. He’s always been so good at skewering his targets with precision, never taking the easy shot. And parts of this book feel... well... easy.

That’s not to say it’s a bad novel. It’s just a lesser novel that may make a heck of a movie, and I’ll be the first to admit it; I’m greedy for the work of my favorite artists. The Coen Brothers, Radiohead, John Irving... these are vital creators, and I remain impatient for their work from project to project. Despite some reservations about some of the material here, the eventual impact is fairly profound. Patrick’s journey isn’t easy or direct, and Irving does a good job of painting the picture of a man gradually realizing that not only does he have a soul, but he may even have a decent one. The pity he’s greeted with by everyone after he loses his hand... the way he stops being Patrick and simply becomes "the lion guy"... it’s rough stuff, and a good deal of our sympathy is earned in the way he deals with these events.

Late in the book, Patrick’s trying to understand Doris, and he’s begun reading Michael Oondatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT because she was reading it, and amidst Patrick’s sweet and flustered fumblings, Irving says something that just pierced me:

"Once again Wallingford felt like a fool. He’d tried to invade a book Doris Clausen had loved, and a movie that had (at least for her) some painful memories attached to it. But books, and sometimes movies, are more personal than that; they can be mutually appreciated, but the specific reasons for loving them cannot be satisfactorily shared.

Good novels and films are not like the news, or what passes for the news – they are more than items. They are comprised of the whole range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book, Patrick now believed."

This is true of John Irving’s work for me. I can tell you that I think THE FOURTH HAND is a worthy addition to his bibliography, even if it’s Irving in a minor key, and I can recommend you go back and read his earlier work if you haven’t already, and I can offer you my feelings after a lifetime of reading his work, but it’s all just a pale shadow of the joy you’ll find there on your own.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback
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  • May 24, 2001, 6:06 a.m. CST

    an ounce of prevention

    by Mister_Pink

    We have book reviews on AICN now? Ain't that cool?

  • May 24, 2001, 6:26 a.m. CST

    I'm a Garp woman

    by Wicked Willow

    from way back-that was the first "grown-up" novel I read when I was younger and I've been a JI fan ever since. I wasn't too crazy about the WATG movie but compared to the Hotel New Hampshire(which completely missed the mark)movie,it holds up well. So far,the best film version I've seen of Irving's work has been Cider House Rules(I have it on DVD). A Widow For One Year was a beautiful book and I've been looking forward to The Fourth Hand ever since I saw it listed in the publisher's catalog(I work in a bookstore). Thank you,Moriaty for the advance preview and hope to see some more book talk here on AICN!

  • May 24, 2001, 6:52 a.m. CST

    Moriarty and I must be the same age...

    by freshmattyp

    Garp was the first adult book I ever read, and I have been revisiting it every couple of years since it came out. John Irving is an american treasure.

  • May 24, 2001, 6:59 a.m. CST

    What I want to know is...

    by JonQuixote

    does it have any incest in it? Irving seems to have a particular obsession with that taboo - Hotel New Hampshire, Owen Meany, Cider House, Widow, all have an incestuous element to them. At any rate, I think he's a phenomenal author and look forward to this new book/movie. And for the gentleman who dismissed Cider House movie as crap, my response is...huh? I loved the book, but there was a lot about it that I didn't like, such as the ending. When I saw the movie I was amazed to discover that everything that worked in the book stayed in, but everything that didn't (IMHO) was gone! A remarkable adaptation that gave me new respect for Irving, like I needed it.

  • May 24, 2001, 8:33 a.m. CST

    A nice surprise

    by rotten666

    Its nice to see a book review on AICN....I am a huge Irving Fan ever since I read Garp when I was about 14. I eagerly await the fourth hand, and I will keep my opinions until I finish the novel. You know if this was a regular talkback so-called "fans" and detractors would be bitchin about what a sellout Irving..etc. etc. etc..... How refreshing.

  • May 24, 2001, 9:03 a.m. CST

    Like Wicked Willow & Fresh Matty P, GARP Was The First Grown Up

    by Buzz Maverik

    I'll bet it'll be a generational touchstone for those of us who are The Last Boomers/First Xers.

  • May 24, 2001, 9:24 a.m. CST

    Not satisfying?

    by James K. Polka

    It concerns me a little that the book wasn't satisfying in the end. From personal experience, Irving is one of my favorite authors because he is able to satisfy, wrapping everything up that needs to be wrapped up, and leaving loose what should be left loose. Like A Prayer For Owen Meany. That book was amazing in its ability to weave diverse elements into a story that felt tightly wound, but was still broad enough to feel natural and realistic. I'll definitely be picking up the new Irving when it comes out, and I'll be hoping that it doesn't leave me disappointed, like so much modern fiction does. "Unsatisying Irving" is generally a contradiction in terms.

  • May 24, 2001, 10:09 a.m. CST

    OWEN MEANY

    by teachmiami

    It's nice to see a book review here. Like some others above, I too am a big John Irving fan. I can't wait for this book. Anyway, is it just me or was anyone else pissed off at the movie Simon Birch. I hated the way that movie ended. I felt like screaming, "THAT"S NOT HOW IT HAPPENED!!!" That movie is a total turd burger!

  • May 24, 2001, 11:06 a.m. CST

    Garp was perfectly cast.

    by Mel Garga

    While I TEND not to agree with the liberal undertones of Irving's books, I can't help but be blown away by his writing. Garp is one of those books that grabs you from page one and doesn't let go. (I sound like one of the reviews on the inside cover.) Anyway, I thought Hill's movie did a good job of compacting the book into an interesting story, the best part being the cast. It seems funny now to watch the film and actually know that Williams was a "risky" choice. However, it is painful watching Lithgow's brilliant, hilarious performace knowing that he would some day be on a lousy shitcom. And Glenn Close did an excellent job as well. By the way, besides Irving, IMDB lists Hill having a cameo as the pilot of the plane that crashes into Garp's house. And books on AICN? How risque! Usually the only book discussed on this site is Lord of the Rings. (Not that that's a bad thing.)

  • May 24, 2001, 11:08 a.m. CST

    Owen Meany

    by Johnny Storm

    Owen Meany is a fantastic book. But I loved Simon Birch as well. Was expecting to see "Son of the Circu" turned into a movie. What happened with that?

  • May 24, 2001, 11:16 a.m. CST

    Cider House was incredibly tiresome

    by Lizzybeth

    and I'm not talking about the movie. I assume his other novels must be better by leaps and bounds, to warrant the praise I'm always hearing for his work. Sure, he can turn a phrase, but his narrative line is all over the place and his transitions are crap. One minute you're with one character in a place, and then you're suddenly in another with someone else, for no discernible reason. I suppose I should try one of his earlier works, but I can't quite muster the interest. I'll just finish the latest Noam Cholmsky instead. Now there's someone important.

  • May 24, 2001, 1:43 p.m. CST

    The envelope please...

    by JonQuixote

    We're reporting live from the aftermath of the 3rd Annual Internet Pretention Awards where, in a stunning victory, the dark horse lizzybeth has just swept the talkback category. We're hoping to have a few words with her as she exits the auditor...there she is. Miss Beth, Miss Beth...exactly what was it that possessed you to not only express a marked preference for Noam Chomsky over John Irving on an AICN talkback, but to actually misspell Chomsky's name in doing so?

  • May 24, 2001, 2:54 p.m. CST

    JonQuixote

    by CYBERSTAIN

    That post got the biggest laugh I had in a while here.

  • May 24, 2001, 3:21 p.m. CST

    The Garp DVD

    by FortyWatto

    One of the film's memorable lines (which I don't think is in the book) has Roberta saying, "I got mine surgically removed under general anesthetic, but to have it bitten off in a Buick..." Roberta is, of course, speaking about his penis. Well, I'm pleased as punch to have a clean widescreen copy on DVD (of the film, that is, not his penis), but now the line is "I got mine surgically removed under general anesthetic, but to have it bitten off..." Lest we forever associate Buicks with penis-chomping, the name of the car has been removed from the DVD. Disgraceful. (And while we're on the subject of Irving, who else wants to see Water-Method Man made into a film?)

  • May 24, 2001, 6:01 p.m. CST

    'Cider House,' the play

    by MartinBlank

    Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I. has been running a six-hour, two-part stage adaptation of the book. It runs till June 17. Not sure whether it originated in Providence or has played elsewhere, but here they're talking about it like it's the second coming of Eugene O'Neill. (oh, do I get a Talkback Pretension no-prize for referencing Eugene O'Neill?) For those interested, I would guess their website has info: http://www.trinityrep.com *** Interestingly, Irving did not adapt his book to the stage. Playwright Peter Parnell did.

  • May 25, 2001, 5:22 a.m. CST

    Water Method Man

    by estimable

    It surprises me that noone has ever adapted The Water Method Man. It's so light and humorous, and it overlaps into the world of film, yet Hollywood has chosen to tackle Irving's complicated epics instead. Maybe now that Irving has become a brand-name (not necessarily a bad thing when compared to other brand-name authors), someone will cash in and make something good in the process.

  • May 25, 2001, 1:25 p.m. CST

    Cider House on Stage

    by ecbean28

    I was on this site and noticed the John Irving reference and read the comments about Irving and his new book. And I was delighted to see the mention of the Cider House stage adaptation. I am currently working at Trinity Rep (in Providence, Rhode Island) and am in the production of Cider House currently running. Peter Parnell has done a wonderful job adapting the book for the stage. The project was helmed originally by Tom Hulce and Jane Jones. It sort of got its start at Seattle Rep. Then there was a full production of parts 1 and 2 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Then they took Part 1 to New York. I encourage anyone in the area to come see our production. Especially if you are a John Irving fan. It is a fabulous story.