The news of Robert James Waller’s death at 77 naturally focused on the 1992 novel that made him famous – “The Bridges of Madison County,” a romance about a photographer who stops at an Iowa farmhouse and ends up having an affair with the lonely wife he finds inside.
But Waller’s passing should be an occasion to visit an earlier phase of his career, when he wrote newspaper columns that are, for my money, better than any novel he ever produced.
“The Bridges of Madison Country” stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for three years, eventually outselling “Gone With the Wind” and inspiring a film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Not all readers found Waller’s florid fictional style to their liking. In writing Waller’s obit for The New York Times, William Grimes quoted this howler from “Bridges,” a bit of posturing from the hero: “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.”
“Bridges” came on my radar when it was deftly parodied on an episode of “Frasier” that featured this quote from a popular page-turner penned by the conniving character Thomas Jay Fallow: “There are tangos that come flowing from the wine seas, from the rust of a hundred sunken ships. This is one of those dances."
I tried to read “Bridges” myself and decided it wasn’t for me. With that in mind, when my local library was selling off discarded volumes for a penny apiece, I wasn’t inclined to take one of the castoffs, Waller’s “Old Songs in a New Café,” home with me.
But I’m glad I did. Published in 1994, “Old Songs” collects some of Waller’s newspaper columns about marriage, fatherhood, and middle age – writings that had little profile until the “Bridges of Madison County” juggernaut took off.
Grounded in Waller’s direct experience rather than fictional speculation, the essays of “Old Songs” refrain from the self-consciously cosmic ebullience that sometimes made his fiction sound overdone. “Excavating Rachel’s Room,” in which Waller chronicles cleaning out his daughter’s bedroom now that she’s grown and gone away, brought tears to my eyes. “Like some rumpled alien army awaiting marching orders,” he writes of the cleared clutter, “the brown trash bags hunker down on the patio in a column of twos. A hard little caravan are they, resting in sunlight and shadow and caring not for their cargos, the sweepings of childhood and beyond.”
In “The Turning of 50,” Waller wrote eloquently about a landmark birthday. With each birthday of middle age, he told readers, “I am given over to marveling at the human capacity for handling the certainty of our own deaths, for writing our own obituaries even as we live. That we can comprehend our own demise and that we do not constantly whirl about in rabid frenzy at the thought of it is part of our magic, a built-in mechanism for sanity of the most powerful kind.”
In facing the prospect of mortality with wonder rather than dread, Robert James Waller wrote an obituary for himself that was worthy of his eventful life.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”