There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.
—The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
In a real way, an era of my life can be defined by novels I read with the word “Bridge” in the title.
This period started in the back half of my senior year of high school, when I read Richard Bach’s The Bridge Across Forever, a book (and author) with which I have a long and mildly complicated history:
But back to that afternoon in the bookstore: the last Bach title on that shelf was The Bridge Across Forever: a lovestory. Like One, its back cover copy consisted of a single, brief item:
If you’ve ever felt alone in a world of strangers, missing someone you’ve never met, you’ll find a message from your love in The Bridge Across Forever.
As a Romantic at heart, that single blurb caught me. I bought the book and proceeded to read it pretty quickly. Without getting into too many details, my love life in high school was non-existent; I didn’t go on my first date until about a month before I graduated, and I didn’t have what I could by any reasonable definition a “girlfriend” until I was in college. (I always suspected my general high levels of geekiness and my general low levels of good looks as being prime causes of this, but I digress.) There was something about that bit on the back cover of that book that really captivated me: Missing someone you’ve never met.
As I recall, I read The Bridge Across Forever over the course of a week or so.
The Bridge Across Forever started an almost literary obsession during which I read everything Richard Bach wrote over the next year or two, and I ranked him among my very favorite authors for a while afterward. There is something to be said about hitting particular authors when you are most susceptible to their own unique magic, and maybe it’s a bit judgmental of me, but I do think you can tell something about a person by which author hits them between the eyes in those formative years between, say, 17 and 19 years of age. A person who gravitated to Richard Bach–weird mysticism and refusal to deal honestly with the details of his life aside–is more likely to be a person I can groove with than someone who discovered Ayn Rand at that same time.
Bach lasted for me through college, though my fascination with him did start to wane a bit as other fascinations came to the fore. (During summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I found an old copy of John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in the basement that had belonged to my sister, and that single book launched me into a fascination with Arthurian legend that has also blown hot-and-cold, but never died, to this day.) But then in 1992–either toward the end of my junior year or at the beginning of my senior year, I don’t recall exactly–a new book with “Bridge” in the title hit the world. The author was a guy who actually lived and taught at another college, the University of Northern Iowa, just twenty miles away from my own school. His name was Robert James Waller, and the book was called The Bridges of Madison County.
This book was a colossus at the time, a hugely successful nationwide bestseller that catapulted Mr. Waller to enormous fame, giving his next few books instant best-seller status that eventually faded. Bridges was even bigger, though, in Iowa, for obvious reasons: a hometown writer hit it big with a story set in the backwaters of Iowa, a state no one ever thinks of as “exotic”, with a story of passion and forbidden love. A nature photographer comes to small-town Iowa to take pictures of some covered bridges for National Geographic, and while there he meets a farm wife whose husband and kids are off at a state fair someplace. In the space of about 48 hours, they have an affair and decide that they are the love of each others’ lives…and then, because she cannot bring herself to leave her family, their relationship ends and they never see each other again.
This story was huge in 1992, and as all such things do, it led to a movie, starring Clint Eastwood as our photographer and Meryl Streep as our farmwife. General consensus seems to have decided that the film is actually better than the book, and it probably is. Like lots of folks back then, I bought a copy of Bridges and read it in about a day. It’s a really short book, actually, and it was attractively published in a small-sized hardcover. The cover is a pleasant aged-paper color, with an inset sepia-toned and weathered photograph of a covered bridge, and the words “A Novel” present in a stylized postmark stamp.
Each chapter heading has a photograph from a covered bridge–the work of our hero photographer, Robert Kincaid–and the book itself is set in a typeface I honestly don’t recall seeing again anywhere else. It’s a nice bit of book design, in all honesty.
As for the writing, well…it’s complicated.
For all the love The Bridges of Madison County received back in 1992, in the years since Robert James Waller has sadly become something of a literary punchline. It’s not hard to see exactly why, though I do think it’s a little unfair. For one thing, when you read Waller’s descriptions of Robert Kincaid–a lanky fellow in an old denim shirt and omnipresent orange suspenders–and then you look at a photo of Robert James Waller from around the time he wrote Bridges, it’s honestly not hard to envision this as a “Mary Sue” story in which Waller is basically writing himself into an erotic tale. I don’t know if there’s any biographical genesis for the story Waller tells in this book that would make it a de facto confessional piece, but I rather doubt it, for the most part. Surely that would have become common knowledge afterwards, and he did have a long career after that. (Waller died in 2017.) Still, I wonder if Waller’s wife read the book and wondered if he was trying to say…something. The marriage ended five years after Bridges came out…probably right around the same time that Richard Bach and Leslie Parrish were deciding they weren’t soulmates after all.
I didn’t love The Bridges of Madison County when I first read it in 1992, but I did like it just fine. For a story set in as down-to-earth a place as you can find, there’s a kind of mysticism that underlies the story, and my impression as I read it was as if Robert James Waller was coming from the same kind of place as Richard Bach, albeit with less overt New Age mystical mumbo-jumbo. Waller’s world is still a place of magic, where lyrical spells are cast in the golden haze of the sinking Iowa sun, particularly if you’re on a covered bridge over a lazy Iowa river (all rivers in Iowa are lazy, and if you don’t believe me, go to Cedar Rapids and look for the rapids sometime). Waller’s magic turns erotic in a way that Bach’s does not, once he moves us from the bridge to the candle-lit kitchen of a lonely Iowa farm house whose wife’s family is out of town. Bridges reminded me of Bridge, with less astral projection and more removal of clothes.
Reading the book again, I’m struck much the same way.
Also, reading the book again, I’m struck by Robert James Waller’s writing style. It’s…well, look…he’s not a bad writer! There are some really good passages in here, and he sets a scene very, very well, often choosing details that matter (such as when Francesca works to dig out the coffee cups that don’t have chips in them). But he also does some really strange stuff, mostly in the form of words he puts in Robert Kincaid’s mouth. This very odd bit of self-description, for one example:
I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.
I do not pretend to have the slightest idea what that means.
And Robert has other speeches about manhood and how he is one of the last of the real cowboys and such. This snippet comes in the middle of a long (several pages long) speech about the loss of the cowboy or some such thing:
Eventually, computers and robots will run things. Humans will manage those machines, but that doesn’t require courage or strength, or any characteristics like those. In fact, men are outliving their usefulness.
OK, I guess. I was discussing this stuff online with a friend of mine recently who suggested that this was part of the whole “Iron John”, Robert Bly movement about masculinity that took place in the years around this novel’s publication. I don’t know enough about the Bly movement to assess that claim, but Waller’s constant description of Kincaid as more force-of-nature than human being always strikes me as odd. Richard Bach doesn’t even go that far.
Waller writes poetically, and his scenes work from the standpoint of the descriptive stagecraft, but it’s hard to home in on either of these two characters. Francesca is a bit easier to sympathize with, since I suspect we all have our “Am I living the correct life?” moments, but it’s not easy to buy her insta-romance with Robert Kincaid because it’s just not easy to buy Robert Kincaid. He doesn’t feel like a character to me; he feels like a device. And when their romance ends, in a moment that I know we the readers are supposed to find deeply sad and moving, the person who gets my sympathy is Richard, Francesca’s husband, who gets home at the end to a wife who will never love him again, if she ever did. Richard can sense something is wrong, something is amiss, something has shifted in his beloved wife. He is riding around with her, running errands, and Robert Kincaid drives past her one last time, on his way out of town forever:
Richard took the truck across the intersection heading north. She looked for an instant past his face toward Harry’s [Robert Kincaid named his pickup truck “Harry”] red taillights moving off into the fog and rain. The old Chevy pickup looked small beside a huge semitrailer rig roaring into Winterset, spraying a wave of road water over the last cowboy.
“Good-bye, Robert Kincaid,” she whispered, and began to cry, openly.
Richard looked over at her. “What’s wrong, Frannie? Will you please tell me what’s wrong with you?”
“Richard, I just need some time to myself. I’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
Richard tuned in the noon livestock reports, looked over at her, and shook his head.
And then, later on in a letter that Francesca has left for her kids once she has died–a letter in which she explains to her son and daughter just why Mom seemed emotionally distant for the rest of her life–there’s this:
I think Richard knew there was something in me he could not reach, and I sometimes wonder if he found the manila envelope when I kept it at home in the bureau [containing a compromising photo that Robert Kincaid had taken of Francesca]. Just before he died, I was sitting by him in a Des Moines hospital, and he said this to me: “Francesca, I know you had your own dreams, too. I’m sorry I couldn’t give them to you.” That was the most touching moment of our lives together.
I can’t lie: I hate that. I hate that at no point does Waller give us any sense that Francesca anguished in the smallest measure over the fact that she denied her husband the emotional intimacy that is supposed to come with marriage. She let him carry the knowledge that he had lost her, somehow, some time, all the way to his death. I hate that.
Waller structures Bridges in flashbacks: Francesca has died and her two kids are seeing to the final dispensation of the estate, when they find the box of stuff Francesca left behind to explain her choices, which end with her request to have her ashes scattered where she herself scattered Robert’s, by the bridge where they first met. We don’t even get to delve very deeply at all into how this affects these two people, now adults, who are learning that their own mother had emotionally wed herself to someone else.
Ultimately The Bridges of Madison County is a story that tries to put a happy gloss on adultery, by assuring us that the affair really was true love, and that it ended quickly, and that everyone lived…well, ever after, anyway. I find it a hard book to love and a hard love story to be captivated by. But once upon a time, it captivated a lot of people.
Robert James Waller returned to Bridges some years later, with an “epilogue” titled A Thousand Country Roads. This is a really strange book that feels to me like a cash grab, an attempt by an author who had lightning in a bottle once to try and grab that market again, this time with a book that purports to tell “the rest of the story”. Problem is, Bridges already assured us that there is no “rest of the story”: Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson had their affair in one weekend, he left town, they never saw each other again, end of story.
A Thousand Country Roads revisits Robert Kincaid after the affair, and we see Francesca a little too, but they never meet. They can’t, after all. The only thing this book can do is give us a scene where Robert and Francesca visit one of their covered bridges, but an hour or two apart, so they don’t meet. There’s a manipulativeness to A Thousand Country Roads that rankles, and it’s odd to have this book that calls itself an “epilogue” to the original book when the “epilogue” book is actually longer than the original!
But anyway, the period of my life when I was open to “mystic love”, that began when I read The Bridge Across Forever, almost certainly drew to a close when I read The Bridges of Madison County. I came to see love as more of a practical thing between two people, and less of a union of two luminous spirit-beings, or the fate-driven intersection of a woman and “a peregrine and all the sailing ships” Last Cowboy. I suspect this transition was driven by another fictional entity, a sitcom that showed up a year later called Mad About You…but that’s a post for another time.