Here comes R. J. Waller again, and still oblivious to intimacy

On Books

April 14, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

In 1992, Warner Books published a novel by an unknown writer named Robert James Waller that forever will confirm a simple truth: The U.S. reading public and publishing industry are ethereal mysteries. It was launched with virtually no fanfare -- nor much expectation. Then -- Leapin' Vesuvius! By the time it was ready for paperback sales, it had sold 6 million copies, making it, by most estimates, the best-selling hardcover novel of all time.

Since then, Waller has published three other novels, a book of essays and one of photographs, with declining sales. He then wrote a sequel to the superblockbusting The Bridges of Madison County. It was turned down by Warner, driving Waller to a tiny Texas firm, John M. Hardy Publishing. Thus today 250,000 first-run copies of A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County (181 pages, $19.95) are coursing into bookstores.

Bridges was a story of a restless, rootless photographer, Robert Kincaid, who had a job taking pictures of covered bridges in Iowa. By chance there, he met a lonesome, lusty farm wife, Francesca Johnson. Her boring but harmless husband was away for a few days. The strangers became a very hot item. They parted, declaring life had never before been -- or ever again would be -- so blissful, but that, for reasons largely unexamined, they had no future. Bye- bye. Waller has been quoted as saying he wrote Bridges in 11 days. For its literary quality, to my eye, that's about nine days more than it is worth, at minimum wage.

I found that book an artless, soulless resignation to the idea that life is limited either to isolation or to escapism. I have nothing personally against -- or particularly for -- Robert James Waller. I have never met the man -- he is said to have granted only two interviews since 1995.

He has a doctorate in economics, used to teach at the university level, now lives on a Texas ranch, plays the guitar, takes pictures, reads books on economics and writes songs that are not marketed. He is 63. I celebrate eccentricity and eccentrics. I am delighted Waller and those around him apparently will never want for food, warmth or comfort.

He begins Country Roads in November 1981. Kincaid is ruminating on his four days with Francesca in 1965. "Might have worked out for you and the woman," Kincaid muses. "She was your one chance, and yet looking back on what happened, there was no chance at all." The reader soon learns that she was widowed in 1980, and that she had gone on feeling that Kincaid was her "one chance." In neither Bridges nor Roads does Waller convincingly confront why Kincaid never made any contact with the woman, though "he would have given up everything for her."

Kincaid is now 68 years old and is driving his original pickup truck, which is still named Harry. He is accompanied by a golden retriever named Highway -- "his best friend" -- and still smokes endless Camels. The proper names of his only intimates -- Harry, Highway and Camel -- appear almost every three or four pages.

Men, this suggests, have far richer relationships with domestic animals, motor vehicles and tobacco than with women. It is not insignificant that Kincaid -- or, rather, Waller -- gives the inanimate truck a human name and the only living creature Kincaid is close to the moniker of an oil-smudged ribbon of concrete.

Kincaid goes back to Roseman Bridge, the focal locus of the earlier book. Francesca, as you should guess, is taking a ritual walk nearby. They miss each other by about three minutes. That's as close as they get.

By the third chapter, readers have met Carlisle McMillan, the 35-year-old progeny of Wynn McMillan, a cello-playing ex-Big Sur hippie, and a man "whose name she either never knew or could not remember." Carlisle has a cat named -- I would not lie to you! -- Dumptruck.

Carlisle is seeking his nameless, faceless father. Kincaid, almost aimlessly tooling around the western half of the United States, ambles by a Mendocino boutique run by a woman with familiar hand gestures -- Wynn McMillan, of course. Hola! He has happened by chance into the shop of the woman whose child he fathered in a two-day fling 36 years before. The unrelenting sequence of coincidences is improbable to the point of apparently unintentional self- burlesque.

The plot is sappily contrived. Every character is a two-dimensional loner, on the run or stuck in a solitary bog. Intimacy is unknown. The book is entirely populated by people in arrested states of early adolescence.

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