John Irving's The Third Leg
John Irvingís latest book, The Third Leg, features the life of John Bath, an aging, award-winning writer, grappling with his literary destiny and his unusual family. As the novel opens, Bath is struggling with his next opus, The Vienna Circus Rape, but is distracted by criticsí accusations that his sensationalist plots pander to popular taste.
Bath is also the head of another eccentric Irving family. At 28, his son, Martin, is already a famous writer, but has been labeled pejoratively as ďa minor, Canadian Stephen King.Ē His second wife, Anneke, is a Dutch doctor, a prosthetist. His daughter, Hannah, is inexplicably single and sexless, despite being 32, a surgeon, and by all accounts stunningly attractive.
Martin Bath is homosexual, and for all Johnís oft-spoken tolerance, he is secretly uncomfortable that his only biological son is gay. John thinks himself manly, and after Martinís coming out party indulges in a bit of extra-marital philandering, almost as if to reassure himself of his own heterosexuality. John shares with Martin an interest in writing and body piercing, but fails to connect emotionally.
Coincidentally, Martinís partner, a mercurial Austrian named Hans, has been walking on a prosthetic leg since the age of 15. In early chapters, Hans catches his peg leg in a broken sidewalk grate, as well as a golf hole. Anneke offers to equip Hans, with a new leg, one with which he can he can swap out the tip into various accessories, including a pool cue.
At this point Johnís daughter, Hannah, re-enters the novel, bringing home an India mystery writer, Ketan, who shares some uncanny similarities with Salman Rushdie. (For example, he has had death threats issued against him because of his writing.) It is well known in the family that Hannah and Ketan have never consummated their marriage. Ketan, an upholder of traditional Indian values, is trying to convince his indifferent parents to orchestrate an arranged marriage with Hannah.
Soon after this, Toronto is rocked by a murder mystery: a young homosexual man is discovered in a meat locker. He had been gored by a deep spear-like weapon. Anneke and the Baths begin to suspect that Hans committed the murder with his old prosthetic leg, the one Anneke herself had recently replaced, effectively disposing of the evidence. Ketan spearheads an independent investigation, mainly in the hopes of clearing Hans, who is now held by the police.
The murder mystery is interrupted as the story returns to subplot of John Bathís writerís block. He is still obsessed with his first book, Breakfast at the Schumannís, which he feels he has never equaled. In that work he had already tied together his lifelong themes, and never so tightly and purely. Each work after Schumann appeared as a kind of pastiche of disjointed themes: dead parents, broken families, and literally broken peopleódismemberment featuring in nearly all of his novels alongside the obligatory rape or two.
Johnís creative sterility is further underscored after Martin suddenly produces a small literary novel, Broken Twigs in the Grass, to near universal acclaim. The critics compare Martin favorably to John, who can no longer work on his sunset opus, The Vienna Circus Rape, set in fin de siŤcle Vienna, and featuring a pre-Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud.† Bath is stuck on the key scene where Sigmund and his wife, Martha, have a domestic spat. Martha attacks Sigmund with a menorah, nearly poking out both his eyes, an incident which purportedly has a seminal impact on Freudís theories.
As usual, Irvingís denouement is worthy of Dickens. Although I wonít spoil the ending, Hansís peg leg proves to be a Cinderella-like fit that ties up all plot threads.
The Third Leg published two years after The Fourth Hand continues Irvingís themes of dismemberment. But the Bath family reveals little inspiration. The reader may squirm at scenes that seem like straight autobiography.
Itís impossible not to like Irvingís characters. They are smart, well-spoken, affluent, and good-looking, and fully developed by Irving. Their lives are filled with interesting problems that the characters have the time and resources to grapple with.
However, as Irving revisits the same themes again, the seams of his craftsmanship are more apparent, distracting the reader. The Third Leg is Irvingís weakest work to date. We hope that Irving can dig deep into himself to discover new themes after a lifetime of writing and reflection.