Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County hasn't left the hardcover best-seller list for three years, but its successful Clint Eastwoodification seems to call for a critical reevaluation of the novel, if only to examine why something so little (a meek and tiny 171 pages) has meant so much to so many while irritating so many more. Like its other current readers, I turned to Bridges for the first time after the movie. Opening its cover, I hoped to discover why the book is once again manfully mounting the list, its taut muscles stretching toward the No. 1 spot like the sinews of some magnificent pagan beast, heaving, gasping, its desire to reach the top untamed by...oh. Excuse me. Is it hot in here?
Actually, no. In Waller's book, it's not the heat, it's the humidity. If you haven't read Bridges yet, no, it's not better than you thought it would be; yes, Waller really does write like that; and the fullness of time has enhanced nothing but the price. The sex scenes may be relatively chaste, but Waller's language is so damp and sticky that the book should come with a fan. For the extra three bucks, it's the least they could do.
Having loved the courtliness and mournful depth of feeling that Eastwood and Meryl Streep brought to their portrayals of photographer Robert Kincaid and housewife Francesca Johnson, I was stricken to discover that The Bridges of Madison County is really about a windy, blather-spouting Marlboro Man doing the wild thing with a woman who with her ''tight jeans,'' flowing black hair, and ''clearly outlined'' nipples is just rarin' to go from the moment she first espies Kincaid's ''small rear'' in his ''tight jeans.'' Tight jeans are a major Wallerian motif, and in Bridges, everything, not just nipples, is outlined more clearly than you'd ever want. The fact that Waller's perfumed-compost prose has yielded a fine, emotionally resonant film only proves the adage that Hollywood is the worst thing that can happen to a good book and the best thing that can happen to a bad one.
But these days, the novel itself is only the hors d'oeuvre in the total Bridges reading experience. Take, for instance, The Bridges of Madison County Memory Book, a collection of blank pages on which you can write the secret diary of your very own extramarital affair. (They've helped you along by penciling in romantic pensaes by Waller, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and some guy named Yeats.) Or pick up Images: Photographs by the Author of 'The Bridges of Madison County', a 99 percent text-free book of 28 postcards that now we're on the right track is supposed to be ripped into pieces.
But the best Bridges spin-off, not to mention the heftiest, is The Bridges of Madison County: The Film actually, the book of the film of the book an oversize, big-picture, light-text offering that's like a Disney Read-Along for adults. TBOMC:TF abridges a wee-to-start-with story into nice, simple, even-less-taxing sentences. See Clint drive a truck. See Meryl beat a rug. ''At first, Francesca was wary of the long-haired out-of-towner. Then, on an impulse, she offered to show him the way,'' read pages 26 and 27, in their entirety. When things get steamier, this glossy tome becomes so erotic it's downright PG-13, like a version of the Madonna Sex book that you could give to your mom. At the end, there's a nice essay on the making of the movie which reveals the title of the book Waller is currently writing: Puerto Vallarta Squeeze. One can only imagine: ''Who is this man, his brown skin like the memory of a thousand sunsets, mixing my margarita with gazelle-like grace, the ripe-to-bursting lime yielding beneath the expert caress of his nimble fingers?''
On second thought, maybe I'll wait for the movie.