Book Review: On the 'Roads' again

By JESSIE THORPE   |   Aug. 2, 2002 at 8:35 AM
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Blame it on the heat index, which seems stuck at 110 degrees.

Blame it on the fact that I'm not taking a vacation this summer, so a book title with the word "roads" in it seemed like a vicarious cheap thrill.

Maybe it's the simple fact that I can't resist any scrap of information about those two deathless lovers Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid. Whatever the reason, I tagged along as Robert James Waller set off once again down "A Thousand Country Roads" (John M. Hardy Publishing, $19.95, 181 pages).

This slim volume is not a sequel to Waller's mega-best-selling "Bridges of Madison County." He quite neatly wrapped that one up with the hero dying and never returning to requite his amorous adventure with a tenderly awakened farmwife.

Rather, this current novel is more of an in-fill. Waller imagines a brief interlude in Kincaid's life when he became involved with a young artist on the sands of Big Sur. The man's style seems to be affairs lasting three or four days.

That friendly coupling did not result in lifelong angst and pained desire, but it did produce a "boy-child," as Waller calls him. The son, Carlisle McMillan, now 36, has decided to search for his father.

The story begins in 1981, sixteen years after Robert Kincaid got lost driving down a dusty road, stopped at an Iowa farmhouse and met a woman who changed his life forever -- and for 12 million readers worldwide if you believe the publicity. Robert is 68, aching a bit in his bones but otherwise still a fine guy, chivalrous and highly principled, a poet-photographer-loner, the "last cowboy," though I've never figured out what Waller means by that description.

Kincaid has a hankering, a powerful yearning to connect with the most potent memory of his life. So he climbs into his old truck Harry -- still running after 27 years of loyal service -- with his trusty dog Highway and forty-three rolls of nearly extinct Tri-X black-and-white film, heads down the coast from Washington state and turns left for Iowa.

At this exact moment in time, Carlisle begins his serious pursuit of the father who rode off on a motorcycle, never knowing what seeds were sown on a California beach.

Waller excels in careful plotting that brings characters oh-so-close. He is a minor genius at arranging his people in ways that display " ... the beauty of caprice." That's what Kincaid calls it when he glimpses objects coming together with an "elegance of whimsy" -- belonging with each other in ways no human could manufacture.

So, while Kincaid is making his slow way back to Roseman Bridge and Francesca, sixty and still lovely, is performing her own ritual trudge to the site of her deepest happiness, Carlisle is on his way out to Seattle.

Two of these people never connect, which is so sad. You want them to be together, the same way you wanted Scarlett to win back Rhett.

It's not meant to be. Waller sets up too many roadblocks -- reticent feelings, internal doubts, no forwarding addresses -- the usual dead ends. But it leaves the reader feeling short-changed. Kincaid is passing through Mendocino, Calif., by utter chance meets that woman from Big Sur and recognizes her more than three decades after their romance. Yet he cannot make it back to Francesca, who has never budged from her kitchen during the sixteen years since they found the love of their lives.

Still, it's a heart-stopping scene where they're within sight of each other once again, only to miss because a snow storm blurs the vision.


We have to make do with a tearful union of father and son in a Seattle jazz club. Kincaid entrusts Carlisle with carrying out his last request, to burn all the negatives and leave " ... the floor swept clean behind me, all traces gone, nothing left."

How I wish Waller would follow Kincaid's instructions. Unfortunately, he promises to carry on this saga someday in the story of Carlisle. I shall try to resist that temptation.

Novels like "Bridges" are publishing phenomena. Resembling bull markets, they move purely on momentum. One must read them because they're being read. The enduring popularity of this story was helped mightily by the film directed by Clint Eastwood. Memorable performances by Eastwood and, especially, Meryl Streep, supported by the bluesy soundtrack and Richard LaGravenese's screenplay, took the material to a new level of thrilling drama and truth.

Here, however, Waller has not risen to new heights as a writer. He breaks no new ground. He's still doing his poor man's Hemingway larded over with new age-y poetry, accompanied by some distant music discernable to the author's ears alone.

Alas, that's not the point. People do experience love in strange and lasting moments, and we all try to make sense of the fragments of our lives. Sometimes, we succeed.

Considering everything, not a bad road trip.

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