By Troy Patterson
Updated July 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a lot of business about E.B. White in John Irving’s The Fourth Hand. One character, a surgeon named Nicholas Zajac, thrills at reading White’s ”Stuart Little” and ”Charlotte’s Web” to his estranged 6 year old son and further recommends those children’s classics to Patrick Wallingford, the book’s protagonist, as a means of forging emotional bonds of his own. The irony is that White, coauthor of the famous writing guide ”The Elements of Style,” would sooner have seen Wilbur slaughtered for salt pork than sanction the detestable prose of Irving’s 10th novel. Early on, the author describes one of Wallingford’s old flames reminiscing over his charms: ”In her eyes, there would suddenly be a kind of light that hadn’t been there; it arrived and departed like a change of color at the day’s end, as if there were no distance too great for this light to travel.”

Huh? At minimum, that passage violates White’s ”Be clear” rule. Given the power and grace of such previous Irving works as ”The World According to Garp” and ”A Prayer for Owen Meany,” this new book seems to defy the dictum ”Write in a way that comes naturally.” And considering the disjointedness of the novel as a whole, there’s no question that Irving has failed to ”work from a suitable design.” A catalog of the sexual conquests of a one dimensional hero interrupted only by baroque zaniness, ”The Fourth Hand” is hardly designed at all. Said hero, Patrick Wallingford, is a thirtysomething TV reporter who files tales of the bizarre for a 24 hour news channel. He considers it an ”irresponsible profession — not that television journalism is the only irresponsible profession.” (Irving litters the book with such pointless asides.) ”A usually even tempered disposition was as much his trademark as his drop dead good looks.” Patrick’s central trait is that no woman can resist him — even after he’s lost his left hand to lions while taping a segment at an Indian circus.

Enter Dr. Zajac, one of several secondary characters whose irrelevant weirdness suggests that Irving is engaged in unwitting self parody. Zajac works at a Boston hand care center with the unbearably goofy name of Schatzman, Gingeleskie, Mengerink & Associates and also started a website ( When he jogs along the banks of the Charles, he plays ”dog turd lacrosse,” scooping poop and heaving it into the river. Why am I telling you this? Why is Irving telling it to us? After giving Patrick a hand transplant, Zajac falls away and pops up only at odd intervals to recommend a couple of books, say, or to marry his housemaid.

If you make it to the end of the book — after colorless hookups, after numbingly windy chapters on the media exploitation of JFK Jr.’s death, after string upon string of inept sentences — you will discover Patrick redeemed by the love of a good woman and become a man, which is impossible to swallow because he never seems more than a clumsy construct. Rule No. 17 of ”The Elements of Style” is ”Omit needless words.” Had Irving followed that advice, we’d be spared this needless book.