There’s nothing wrong with pitting lust and responsibility against each other; the dynamic is arguably the most compelling engine of sexual tension. I believe wholeheartedly that people over the age of 30—or, god forbid, 40—should be represented as full people with raunchy and shattering desires. There’s nothing inherently corny, necessarily, about a stoic heroine doing the right thing, or a man imagining himself as equal parts cowboy and poet. (In fact, I’m a well-documented fan of exactly that type of guy.) I even have a healthy respect for the power of short affairs to reconstitute a person’s reality in a way that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. But The Bridges of Madison County, the fantastically successful 1992 novel about a small-town mom forever transformed by a short tryst with a stranger, a book pounded out in a masturbatory fever by a professor of business management over the course of 11 days, manages to spoil even the low-hanging fruit and debases every one of these otherwise seductive themes.
Truly, I wanted to lose myself in one of the iconic novels of the 1990s, and there’s never been a better time for a salty person to try a little romance: I’m holed up in a February polar vortex almost a year into a pandemic that’s made it impossible for me to, for example, invite a stranger out for a quick jaunt to a local landmark and fall on his dick in such a way that would define the rest of my life. And, sure, I can imagine being swept away by a hot dirtbag, an artist insofar as his body invites comparisons to sculpture and his truck is full of dented photography gear. I can even, suspending disbelief, place myself in the role of a chaste Iowa farmers’ wife who spends her twilight years pining for a man she absolutely should have run away with, having found her soulmate over the course of four days and three torrid nights. But I cannot, under any circumstances, imagine writing a posthumous letter to my adult children describing how well that dirtbag fucked me as if that were the sum total of what should be known about my inner world. Even in the throes of hypnotic passion, I would never refer, repeatedly, to my lover as a shaman, a leopard, or a bird of prey. At the very least, I would hope that if I were being consumed by longing for a person I just met, I’d push back a bit on his lengthy speeches about how his vanishing breed of wild, valorous man was more biologically suited to throwing spears than putting on a suit.
It has crossed by my mind that I feel this way because I’ve never experienced the kind of love Robert James Waller describes, a love so deep that in the words of its author a person might be taught “what it was like to be a woman in a way that few women, maybe none, ever will.” But then again, Walter, whose tossed-off novel almost instantly manifested an Atlantic Records deal featuring his own songs (about covered bridges, naturally) as well as massively successful Clint Eastwood vehicle—a movie that in turn inspired, among other things, a perfume line and a blank journal featuring Eastwood’s own Bridges-inspired photography–was at one point believed to have based The Bridges of Madison County’s protagonist partially on his wife. And then he left her for the couple’s landscaper, almost 25 years his junior, soon after his acclaimed novel about twin-souled lovers separated by continents made him filthy rich.
The Bridges of Madison County’s plot, as these things go, is simple: A roguish silver-haired photographer who shoots for National Geographic visits a small Midwestern town famous for its covered bridges and meets a middle-aged married beauty of Italian descent. Her husband and two children are away on a trip to the Iowa State Fair. The relative strangers have sex that’s rather light on physical details for a novel frequently referred to as a “bodice ripper” but somehow involves the involuntary whispering of poetry and a Navajo sun chant.
Four days later, the torrid affair ends when the heroine, Francesca, declines to leave town with Robert Kinkaid out of loyalty to her family. She loves him forever; he never sleeps with another woman again. After her death in the late ’80s, Francesca’s modern children are chastened by a letter she’s written describing the secret affair and its “incredible, powerful, transcending lovemaking” that “went on for days.” Faced with their mother’s selflessness in sticking with the family, the children realize they’ve treated their own marriages and loyalties casually: “God, we’re so innocent and immature compared to her,” one improbably says after reading a passage packed with what could only be symbolic references to Kinkaid’s massive “power.”
The novel is bookended by notes from a fictional reporter who is purported to have recreated their story from journals and notes, overcome by the couple’s old-fashioned romance “in a world where personal commitment in all of its forms seems to be shattering” and true love has died. At publication, Publisher’s Weekly called the novel “quietly powerful and thoroughly credible,” which is a lie. The book was excerpted in Cosmopolitan and sold 6 million copies in two years, largely thanks to word-of-mouth sales. Waller reportedly developed carpal tunnel syndrome from signing his name so many times. To this day, visitors flock to Winterset, Iowa and covered bridges remain an improbable symbol of romance. The book’s meteoric success was variously credited to the impact of a romance featuring older protagonists and the charm of traditional values: “New York is filled with cultural snobs who just don’t understand the appeal of a book about an extramarital affair that doesn’t break up a marriage,” one reporter surmised. Oprah featured the book on her show, where she called it a “gift to the country” and Waller got to play some of his godawful country ballads on TV.
Bridges masquerades as a romance about old-world values and moral resolve, and it’s definitely a love story, though perhaps not in the way its fans wanted it to be when they drove to Waller’s house to steal a leaf from his yard or moved to Madison County looking for love. Really, it’s a story about how far past the point of credulity a middle-aged professor of business management can stretch his love for himself and the kind of man he imagines himself to be. Robert James Waller, who was 52 when he wrote Bridges, shared with Kinkaid a head of long silver hair (“disheveled, as if he had just come in from a long sea voyage”), an eye color (“the coolest blue eyes you’ve ever seen”), and a wiry frame: “At 52 his body was all lean muscle, muscle that moved with the kind of intensity and power that comes only to men who work hard and take care of themselves.” Francesca struggles mightily to figure out if his grace is more like that of a leopard or a gazelle.
Coincidentally, both men favor pickup trucks and play guitar and take pictures professionally, the latter work is intense in a way “only understood by soldiers, surgeons, and photographers,” writes Waller, who might differ from his protagonist only in that Kinkaid possesses modesty and perhaps a sense of shame. It remains unclear if Waller, like Kinkaid, could have sex for hours without coming and “could reach those places in his mind as well as physically,” experiencing “orgasms of the mind” with “their own special character,” a fact that is brought up exactly once in Bridges and never expanded on again. Francesca, meanwhile, is mostly described as being hot and looking smart. Her intelligence is just something Kinkaid can sense through her cotton T-shirt. He’s intuitive that way, perhaps thanks to that aforementioned indigenous sex chant.
Waller fills the silence where a female character might otherwise be with long passages about the threat modernity poses to true manhood, a masculinity obviously embodied by Kinkaid, an “ethereal, even spectral” traveler in the words of the journalist who tracks down his story and admits to being fascinated by the last cowboy on earth. Kinkaid is a true artist who rails against “hierarchies of authority, spans of control,” who has ridden motorcycles through Big Sur and fucked in rivers in Cambodia and reads Hemingway, who “dominated using skill and intellect” rather than relying on his considerable physical strength, which is also described often and at length. Kinkaid is sensitive enough to recite Rilke and say things like “male hormones are the ultimate cause of trouble on this planet”; he is also a “graceful, hard male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely.” He understands why women are (allegedly) so uninterested in sex: It’s because they aren’t having it with Kinkaid.
“There’s a certain breed of man that’s obsolete,” Kinkaid says to Francesca, besieged by “rules and regulations and social conventions.” Not all men are alike, he tells her. The world of “computers and robots” wasn’t made for the wild ones like him. “We run fast, are strong and quick, aggressive and tough. We were given courage. We can throw spears long distances and fight in hand-to-hand combat.” That world, in which women are made more feminine by association with such men—Francesca speaks frequently about feeling most like a woman with Kinkaid—is alleged to be disappearing: “With the loss of the free range, the cowboy disappears, along with the mountain lion and the gray wolf.” All of which sounds like, to this blogger at least, the barely coherent projections of a man baffled by shifting gender roles and railing against the modern world as he barrels towards his sixth decade on Earth.
Given all this, it’s no surprise the book ends not with Francesca but with the journalist, so fascinated by Kinkaid he travels to Washington and interviews a jazz musician who briefly knew the manliest of men. (I’ll leave out an extended discussion of how Waller writes Black vernacular, but trust me, it’s not great.) Naturally, the interview discusses at length what an excellent photographer Waller’s imaginary version of himself is, the perfect conclusion for a story that can only be described as fan fiction about oneself. All of which is to say: This isn’t a romance novel; it’s the most profitable midlife crisis a guy has ever had. There are no heroes in this story—except maybe the teens who burned that fucking covered bridge down a few years back.