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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.

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.

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