The Fourth Hand, by John Irving

Reviewed by Bruce Hutton

At some point in almost every life, the question comes: Is redemption possible? Considering all you've done, all you think you've done, all you've been through, you wonder: Can I ever see the world again with the same unjaded eyes I had before?

John Irving, author of some of the best books of the last 25 years, takes on this very question in his latest novel, The Fourth Hand, and his answer is a resounding, "You betcha." You might have to take a few unpleasant side-trips along the way -- you might have to lose your hand to a lion in an Indian circus, for instance -- but joy is there to be found if you look hard enough.

The man deprived of his hand is Patrick Wallingford, a handsome and cynical TV reporter for a CNBC-type channel that shuttles him all over the world to cover senseless and stupid deaths the TV audience might find amusing. Patrick is also a relentless womanizer who cheats himself out of a marriage and numerous relationships, but in the world of Irving this isn't necessarily a bad thing. There is the touch of the victim in Irving's portrait of Wallingford: "He'd never been a bad man," we're told, "only a bad husband." Maybe he just needs to do a little growing up.

This process of growing up begins when he meets a woman named Doris Clausen, a new widow who donates her husband's left hand to Patrick for transplant surgery. Doris wants a baby, but Mr. Clausen was sterile and now he's dead, so the moment she's introduced to Patrick she whips off her clothes and jumps in his lap. Nine months later, Otto Jr. is born, named after her late husband, whose left hand Patrick is now wearing. Doris gets visitation rights with the hand, and Patrick falls in love.

And it is love, not the new hand, that slowly changes Patrick Wallingford from a stock Irving character into a human being, and propels this novel, with its stock Irving weirdness, into the ranks of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.

Patrick begins to understand what a cad and a coward he's been, and Irving himself seems along for the ride. Looking at the lives (and deaths) of the people he reports on, the bizarre nature of Patrick and Doris's meeting loses its aftertaste as Patrick realizes that "the bizarre was commonplace, hence not bizarre at all. It was all death, all loss, all grief -- no matter how stupid." Love changes his outlook completely, and when he reports on things like John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death and the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, his new attitude shows. The formerly cynical, if not mocking, telejournalist searches to find ways of making people feel "cautiously better about what was indisputably bad." And we seem to see this understanding come to Irving, too, because that, after all, is the storyteller's role: to leaven the horror of life and make us laugh or allow us to cry. At his best, Irving does both, and here he's most assuredly at his best.

Don't misunderstand. This is still John Irving we're talking about. There are still many potshots throughout at things that piss him off -- the lazy technique of modern journalism, feminism as a political force and domineering, spiteful women in general, to name just a few -- but in The Fourth Hand, there's a more relaxed, settled tone to the writing, something hinted at in Irving's last novel (A Widow For One Year) but never spoken, until now.

"We never really know our future," muses Patrick, a man who always thinks he knows what's going to happen. "Nobody's future with anyone is certain." This may sound obvious, but remember that its source is the mind of a novelist, a place where things like destiny and certainty are supposed to be quite locked down. Through Patrick and Doris, Irving has learned how to tell a conventional story of redemption through love; but, being Irving, he could never tell anything conventionally, even with life -- and limb -- at stake.

Comic books made me a snob. As a child, I was riveted by Spiderman and went on to become meticulous about grading my comics' condition and completing series numbers. Now they lie entombed in acid-free boxes and Mylar bags in my house, waiting for divestment.

Occasionally, I even buy one for old times' sake. Spiderman, like me, appears to have grown up, but his marriage seems to be on the rocks. Still, it's getting harder and harder to find comics because a big cultural shift has taken place: Kids don't read them anymore.

Comic Book Nation, by Bradfird W. Wright

Reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn

Comic books, like paper routes and small drugstores, have become an endangered species. A series of corporate takeovers, coupled with the dilution of the product and the rise of computer games and music videos, means that the financial state of Marvel and other companies is shaky at best. Once prominently displayed at newsstands and drugstores, the main outlet for comic sales now are specialty shops. Not surprisingly, the disappearance of comic books means that they have become part of the national nostalgia industry. Indeed, at a time when George W. Bush's proudest initiative is to host "T-ball" at the White House in memory of his own Little League exertions, it probably shouldn't surprise anyone that comic books are attracting new attention.

Enter Bradford W. Wright, a historian at the University of Maryland. Wright is the first serious historian to tackle comics. He is a seasoned veteran of the comics' world. He quips in his preface that "few works of historical scholarship can truly claim to represent a lifetime of research as this one does." Though never a serious collector, Wright was an avid reader as a child. Now he has produced a fascinating survey of the rise and fall of comics.

Unburdened by any theoretical apparatus, his Comic Book Nation is informative, humorous and penetrating. Wright never devolves into minutiae likely to bore the non-initiate, and his narrative is extremely well organized. His theme is simple and persuasive: Comic books provide an acute lens through which to study shifts in popular culture, from World War II to Vietnam to the Reagan era. He argues that editors, mostly Jewish and liberal, sought to challenge racism, fascism, poverty and the threat of nuclear war. Perhaps his most provocative argument is that the dress rehearsal for today's culture wars about television and rap music took place in comic books.

According to Wright, comic books, which first appeared in the early-1930s, occupied a status just above pornography. Crude and formulaic, they were written by aspiring artists eager to see their names in print. The genre didn't take off until 1939, when Superman was published by Detective Comics (DC). Wright shows the extent to which Superman was a New Deal creation. His two young creators, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, cast Superman as, in their words, a "champion of the oppressed... devoted to helping those in need." Wright notes that "in his initial episode, Superman saves a falsely accused prisoner from a lynch mob, produces evidence that frees an innocent woman on death row, and defends a woman about to be beaten by her husband." Later on, Superman destroys a conspiracy involving a senator, a lobbyist and a munitions manufacturer who seek to foment a war in Latin America.

Other DC characters would take the same line, tackling corrupt political bosses and defending the common man. The underlying message was that American society required might to make right. Renowned cartoonist Jules Feiffer has observed that "once the odds were appraised honestly it was apparent you had to be super to get on in this world." More conservative figures had their doubts about the new form. Frank Vlamos, writing in The American Mercury, complained that comics represented "the most dismaying mass of undiluted horror and prodigious impossibility ever visited on the sanity of a nation's youth."

But World War II ratified the new interest in comics. GI's whiling away time by leafing through comics became a staple of wartime propaganda. One of four magazines shipped to troops overseas was a comic book, and 35,000 copies of Superman alone went abroad each month. So enthusiastic for war were Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who produced Captain America, that they inspired isolationist outrage by having the good captain denounce Nazism before the U.S. had entered the war. According to Wright, Captain America "came to epitomize not only the values and fighting spirit of the national war effort but also the fortunes that comic book publishers would reap from their enlistment into patriotic wartime culture."

Fascism could not have fit better into the Manichean world of comic books. Once prosperity hit the United States, publishers had to readjust. Fighting social inequality was out. Fantasy was in. No one personified the shift better than Superman. Having launched his career as a crusading champion of social justice and a militant antifascist," says Wright, "by the end of the war Superman has assumed his befitting role as the conservative elder statesman among comic book heroes above the political and social concerns of the day." Superman became a god-like figure, picking up new powers as well as a self-sustaining world that included a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic. However, the industry's sales slumped as it produced anodyne tales of Goody-Two-Shoes who always did right.

Ironically, comic books became dull as dishwater because of the more ghoulish fare published by EC comics, which triggered a mini-culture war. Wright explains that EC comics offered something of a precursor to the upheaval of the 1960s, questioning authority before it was fashionable to question anything. In perhaps the most notorious panel printed by EC comics, a murderous baseball team plays a midnight game with limbs and entrails of a victim. Another issue depicted a man holding a bloody ax in one hand and a woman's severed head in the other. "Corpses in various states of decay and reanimation," Wright says, "regularly adorned the covers.

"A commercial expression of cultural defiance," he writes, "EC brilliantly perceived the alienated generation among young people and recognized youth dissatisfaction as a marketable commodity." The reaction came quickly. By 1948, Catholic schools were conducting bonfires of comic books. Wright notes that questions about the moral staunchness of youth and its ability to resist communism hovered over an entire generation.

Dr. Fredric Wertham, a New York City psychiatrist who had emigrated to the United States from Germany, soon became the industry's bloodhound. In 1948, he presented his findings to the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy in an address titled "The Psychopathology of Comic Books." In coming years, Wertham would find plenty of material to decry, resulting, in 1954, in his 400-page indictment, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham complained, for example, that "one of the stock mental aphrodisiacs" in comic books was to show large breasts; when that wasn't the case, the publishers were promoting homosexuality. Batman's sidekick, Robin, he said, was "usually shown in his uniform with bare legs" and often stood "with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident."

Wertham's charges were taken seriously. Soon enough, William M. Gaines, the publisher of EC, found himself facing off against a Senate investigative committee headed by Estes Kefauver. It was a rout. Kefauver declared that a panel in the July issue "seems to be a man with a woman in a boat and he is choking her to death here with a crowbar. Is that in good taste?" "I think so," was all Gaines could answer. The prudish Comics Code was slammed into place, and the industry ground out boring, uncontroversial bilge.

The decisive change came in the early-1960s, when Stan "the Man" Lee revived Marvel Comics. Lee's accomplishment cannot be exaggerated. He invented the superhero as anti-hero. Spiderman was a smart-aleck outsider who enraged the establishment newspaper run by cigar-champing J. Jonah Jameson. As Peter Parker, Spiderman was a nerdy student, mocked as a wimp and tormented by the class bully, Flash Thompson. The rest of the time, his Aunt May was fussing over him, or he was desperately trying to earn money to keep her financially afloat by snapping pictures for, of all people, J. Jonah Jameson. The Incredible Hulk may not have been financially strapped, but he was even more alienated than Spiderman, battling the U.S. Army as well as the Fantastic Four.

Nor were Lee's heroes flawless. Far from it. Lee had the Fantastic Four's Invisible Woman abandon her lover, Mr. Fantastic, for several issues to enjoy a fling with the Submariner. The Avengers fought each other as much as they did supervillains. Comics anticipated the freewheeling social atmosphere of the '60s. Stan Lee became a favorite speaker at universities like Columbia and New York University.

"A 1965 college poll conducted by Esquire," Wright says, "revealed that student radicals ranked Spiderman and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons... The outsider hero had arrived as the most celebrated figure in youth culture, and Marvel had him."

Another backlash came in the late-1960s, when Lee and a new generation of writers tackled themes ranging from American guilt in Vietnam to drug abuse to the environment. In "Spiderman #96," which the Comic Code famously refused to approve, Lee had a black youth questioning an industrialist about his social responsibility, or lack thereof. "What have you done to fight drugs?" he asks. "Look! I'm just one man! It's not my responsibility." The youth replies, "You're rich! You've got influence! That makes it your responsibility."

After Watergate, Captain America uncovered a conspiracy to take over the U.S. government led by the president himself. A despondent Captain even chucked his uniform for several issues, while surrogates try to take his place. In The Defenders, a future is depicted in which citizens suffer the effects of global warming. Wright says that "times had changed to such an extent that comic books now garnered praise in the media for questioning old assumptions and challenging established authorities instead of endorsing traditional American values." In the Reagan era, Marvel -- by then the only company that counted -- mixed things up a bit. Daredevil became a vigilante, featured holding a gun on a cover with the slogan "No More Mister Nice Guy." One of the most popular new characters, Wolverine, meted out summary justice; he was "Dirty Harry" with adamantine claws.

Wright properly notes the efforts by Stan Lee to introduce black characters, first as bystanders, then as superheroes, into the Marvel lineup, something other publishers were too cowardly to attempt. The first black marvel character was an African prince called "The Black Panther" -- even before the radical militant group the Black Panthers was on the scene. If anyone was the conscience of the comic book industry, it was Lee.

But like Cold Warriors who ended up without a job, comic books may have been too successful. Wright believes that "comic books are losing their audience not because they have failed to keep up with changes in American culture, but because American culture has finally caught up with them. America at the turn of the 21st century has a pervasive consumer culture based largely on the perpetuation of adolescence." Well, maybe. But comics used to appeal to the young because they anticipated, not just mirrored, popular culture. Now they've become a nostalgia item, ripe for documentation. Can Ken Burns be far behind?

Balsamic Dreams, by Joe Queenan

Reviewed by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.

"Baby Boomers are the most obnoxious people in the history of the human race." So says Joe Queenan in his latest poke-in-the-eye of a book, Balsamic Dreams. And he should know -- he, himself, is a Baby Boomer.

While the generation that came before those born between 1946 and 1962 is now known as the "Greatest Generation" and those who have come after have been given the dashing albeit meaningless moniker of Gen X, the name Baby Boomer is more often than not uttered with derision these days. They're the ones who consume way too much, only care about themselves, their SUVs and their suburban castles and they are the ones who are expected to bankrupt us all when they retire and start drawing Social Security. Queenan's book makes him just the turncoat to lead the Boomer backlash.

Although this is clearly designed to tickle funny bones, Queenan, a New York-based writer for the New York Times and GQ, makes a strong case that his kind have strayed badly from the path they first set out on. The generation that showed such promise, became "...the generation that insisted that it wasn't going to opt out. But we did. We got co-opted. We got suckered. We did get fooled again. And again. And again. Our fate eerily paralleled Paul's: We started out as the Beatles; we ended up as Wings."

Queenan's use of pop cultural reference points held dear by the Baby Boomers gives his book its bite. There are the things he is proud of (driving Nixon from office, the Freedom Riders, Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy), and then there are the things he finds embarrassing, like ridiculously expensive balsamic vinegars, spoiled, precocious trophy children and a variety of musicians, from Sting to Paul Simon. But Queenan saves his harshest criticism for Carole King and her Tapestry album. He even names the date it came out -- April 21, 1971 -- as the moment when things really went awry for the Boomers.

"Tapestry introduced the three themes that would dominate the Baby Boomer mind-set from that point forward: genteel lameness ('You've Got A Friend'), communal nostalgia for the extremely recent past ('So Far Away,' 'It's Too Late') and incessant and incorrigible self-repackaging ('Will You Love Me Tomorrow?')."

But there's an ironic twist behind each of Queenan's bon mots -- his very book is sure to be heartily embraced by Boomers and will push their annoying quotient to even higher levels. In naming all the things that are no longer fashionable, he's simply creating a kind of orthodoxy that will be all too easy for Boomers to incorporate into their ever-malleable personas. Boomers are an easily herded species, and I think we can expect to be treated to an entirely new level of snobbishness about music. Heck, they'll probably even all start talking about how far they have strayed, thereby absolving themselves of any guilt.

So maybe Queenan wrote the whole thing with a wink -- a tome of absolution for a generation that would prefer skimming a slim volume to the harder task of actual self-criticism. But along the way, there are a handful of dead-on observations and hilarious strings of well-chosen verbiage.

Queenan's trip to Seattle to see the new Experience Music Project provides great fodder, and proves that the only thing worse than a Baby Boomer is an extremely rich Baby Boomer.

"In the final analysis, Paul Allen's Experience Music Project is a series of micro-museums of what is personally important to a select group of Baby Boomers. 'Here's a load of crap associated with third-tier Pacific Northwest bands I used to listen to when I was growing up. I really liked them; they meant a lot to me; I hope you like them.' "

He then adds: "Don't forget to check out our great gift shop, so you can do the most ridiculous thing of all in post-Baby Boomer America, which is to buy pointless memorabilia in a museum devoted to pointless memorabilia."

But at other times, his stories start to sound familiar -- and it's usually because you read a variation on it just a few chapters earlier. Sometimes it feels like he's pushing to get to 200 pages (he finally manages 202).

But Queenan finally puts this thing in the win column (baseball analogies are another of his pet peeves) on the strength of picking on Tom Brokaw, who although not technically a Baby Boomer, is elevated to honorary status for his ongoing fascination/love affair with the generation

that survived the Depression and won World War II.

Queenan wonders why Brokaw took so long to catch onto the fact that this group was special, which he concedes. But the greatest? Queenan is not convinced.

"So my final question to Tom Brokaw is simple: If the Greatest Generation was so great, how come they raised children like the Baby Boomers?"

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