Building bridges Sentimental novel keeps novice writer on top

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sometime soon -- probably this month, his publisher says -- the 3 millionth copy of Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" will be printed. On Sunday, it will have been on the best-seller list of The New York Times Book Review for exactly one year. This slim novel of bittersweet love in rural Iowa has been the Times' No. 1 fiction seller for 24 of those weeks, and remains atop the list despite competition from such heavyweights as John Grisham, Scott Turow and John le Carre.

"The Bridges" is an unabashedly sentimental novel written by a former Iowa academic who calls himself "one of the last cowboys" -- much like Robert Kincaid, the novel's Yeats-spouting loner who feels adrift in a world of crassness and conformity. Published by Warner Books in April 1992 with a modest first printing of 29,000, "The Bridges of Madison County" reached No. 1 on the fiction list in January 1993, and it shows no signs of slipping.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey liked the book so much that in May she did an entire show from Madison County, Iowa (the book's title refers to the covered bridges there, a popular tourist attraction). It's become a staple of reading groups, and has sparked any number of lively discussions between readers who were entranced by the novel's romantic plot and by those who felt it was overdone schmaltz.

For instance, there's a scene between Kincaid, who is in Madison County to photograph the bridges for National Geographic, and Francesca Johnson, the lonely farmer's wife with whom he has begun a passionate, four-day affair. As they discuss what to do as her husband's return becomes imminent, Kincaid begs Francesca to run off with him: "We'll make love in desert sand and drink brandy on balconies in Mombasa, watching dhows from Arabia run up their sails in the first wind of morning. I'll show you lion country and an old French city on the Bay of Bengal where there's a wonderful rooftop restaurant, and trains that climb through mountain passes and little inns run by Basques high in the Pyrenees. . . ."

Something of a phenomenon

Whether this kind of prose enchants or repels you, this 171-page book of debatable literary value has become a publishing and cultural phenomenon of the "Love Story" ilk.

"It's just a beautiful little book, and it's very, very moving -- unusual in this day of so much cynicism," says Dee Peeler, head buyer for the book department at Greetings & Readings in

Towson. "In 15 years at this store, I've never seen a book quite like it. There have been a lot of best-selling books that have done extremely well, but this is one of a kind."

"Bridges" is one of a kind in another, very American way: It may dTC be one of the most heavily and diversely marketed books yet.

If you haven't read the Francesca/Robert saga, there's always the record album. The recently released "The Ballads of Madison County" will be part of an ambitious cross-marketing effort involving Atlantic Records and Warner Books, its corporate brother in the giant Time Warner conglomerate. Mr. Waller, who has played banjo and guitar in Midwest bars and Holiday Inns over the years, signed a five-album contract with Atlantic.

And this being the '90s, there's a video, of course. "The Madison County Waltz," a ballad in which Mr. Waller and his wife, Georgia Ann, re-enact the plot line of the book along to his mournful music, debuted Wednesday on the VH-1 cable music channel.

The movie? Steven Spielberg's production company bought the rights, and (at this moment) Sydney Pollack will direct and

Robert Redford will play Kincaid. Preproduction work is to begin this fall in Iowa, according to Mr. Waller's agent, Aaron Priest. Entertainment Weekly reports several top actresses (including Kathleen Turner, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon) are rumored to be vying for the role of Francesca.

And a calendar for 1995

Filming may not begin till 1994, with the movie perhaps coming out just in time to whet the appetite for a 1995 calendar featuring photographs of the now-famous bridges (Iowa tourism officials says inquiries about them have tripled since the book came out). Taking the pictures is the author himself, an amateur photographer. Obviously, Mr. Waller is one busy man: A publicist said he was unavailable for a telephone interview because he's on a concert tour, billed as "An Evening With Robert James Waller."

Stay on the horse

If this seems a bit too much fuss over a slender novel that was written by a former college dean in two weeks in July 1990, consider the words of the author himself. Speaking at the American Booksellers Association convention in Miami Beach in May, Mr. Waller told a collection of book-industry types about the calendar and album, then said good-naturedly, "When the horse is running, you ride it until it falls down."

That sentiment was fine with the crowd, much of it made up of bookstore owners and employees whose energetic backing of "The Bridges" helped it become a runaway best seller. By now, the stories are approaching legend: the store owner in Greenwich, Conn., who would press the book upon every customer who came through his doors, or stores that offered money-back guarantees to dissatisfied customers.

"This was a book that we independent bookstores sold," says Ms. Peeler, who estimates that Greetings & Readings has sold about 1,000 copies of "Bridges." "We read it, we loved it, and we pushed it to our readers. Then they loved it and told their friends."

"It's a wonderful little love story," says Lindsay Hardesty, 39, of Baltimore, who says she "reads everything." "A friend of mine gave it to me. It took me an hour and a half.

It's not a great work, but a poignant story about a woman who had one brief grand love but gave it up to do the right thing."

The "right thing" is what irritates some of the book's readers who feel -- without giving away the ending -- that Robert Kincaid comes out of the affair with a lot better deal than Francesca.

"I thought it was one of the worst-written books I ever read," says Christy Macy, a speech writer for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "Not only did it have paragraphs of whole conversation in ways that people don't talk, but it's a terribly sexist book. Kincaid at least had a life, and was a romantic character. She had no life. That really offended me.

Start of a backlash

"The basic premise that someone can bring out an explosion of passion and self-revelation -- we all have these thoughts and fantasies," Ms. Macy continues. "But the way he [Mr. Waller] carried it off, it doesn't resonate with me. I think I ended up throwing the book across the room."

With the huge success of "The Bridges of Madison County," there was bound to be a backlash, as evidenced in a recent column by Frank Rich in The New York Times Magazine. Part of it might be a reaction to the Last Cowboy himself, who seems to be too good to be true -- and knows it. Of Kincaid, Mr. Rich wrote mockingly that he "may be the only man in America who combines the best qualities of a community-college English professor, a carnival roustabout, a progressive country recording star and a personal trainer."

It also will be interesting to see the reaction of those who liked "Bridges" because it was a simple message from the heart -- only to see Mr. Waller on cable TV plugging his album like Boxcar Willie or Zamfir, the wizard of the pan flute. "It might make everything seem a bit trite -- take something away from the appeal of the book," Ms. Hardesty concedes.

"I think Robert's aware of the danger of backlash and overexposure," says James Flansburg, an editorial columnist for the Des Moines Register and a friend. "I talked to him a few weeks ago, and he's wonderfully amused by it all. This could be a very ugly thing if you didn't have a sense of humor. And as long as he's amused by it, I'm confident he'll continue to do it. He knows it's an experience that few people will have."

If Mr. Waller does find it all too much to handle, Mr. Flansburg anticipates his response -- one that would surely disappoint many people and cheer a good number more.

"I would guess," he says, "that he would simply go and disappear after a time."

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