Journey into the Firelight: The life and death of Robert James Waller

I don’t typically acknowledge memorials because to me, you live, you die—it’s all transitory.  The spirit of someone is what matters and the body is just a vehicle they ride in.  So when a car stops working, I typically don’t attribute that to the end of a person.  However, in regards to what I think is one of America’s great authors, Robert James Waller who died quietly at his home in Texas yesterday at the age of 77, I’ll make an exception because it’s likely we won’t see any more of his very good literature.  Needless to say, I have been a fan of his since his breakthrough novel, The Bridges of Madison County.  I was quite ecstatic when Clint Eastwood took up the movie project at Warner Bros. to make that very interesting novel into a movie just two years after the novel was released as it was to me a modern Arthurian romance mythology about the nature of love—how duty destroys passion between couples and how to live authentically in the modern world.  Here was my favorite actor/director handling one of my favorite novels—so on the opening day of the film, I was the very first one in line—as if it were a Star Wars movie.  I loved the material and subsequently devoured each book that Waller wrote from then on as they were released.

That little collection is a uniquely western view of the world mixed with the type of mysticism associated with oriental cultures.  Waller captured perfectly the modern conflict of the esoteric and exoteric with out-of-the-box characters yearning like Ayn Rand’s characters always for more.  Waller’s characters were trapped against foundations of social convention and always seeking to flee into the firelight—as he put it often.  My favorite of his characters of course was Robert Kincaid who I always associated with—and was obviously autobiographical for Robert Waller himself.

The negative reviews of his work often confounded Waller, he really didn’t understand why the literary critics hated him so much, yet his novels did so well, especially The Bridges of Madison County.  It was a short book that many desperate women were screaming for as a voice beyond the veil of their social conventions cobbled up like a dry rotted sponge being tossed into an old bucket to wash away the dirt on a car that needed to be cleaned after a long winter on the first good spring day.  Pieces of that sponge of course fell off during the act and it showed culturally in the women and some men who read Bridges—and the critics hated it.  Waller’s Robert Kincaid is exactly the type of man who the literary critics were afraid of—he was too perfect, too powerful, too smart—and the idea that someone like him existed in pickup trucks all across the American landscape honestly terrified them.  For the weakened, defeated males of American culture it was also terrifying to them to consider that somebody like a Robert Kincaid could come along and steal their women by just asking for a cold drink on a hot day.  Waller was essentially writing about T.S. Elliot’s Wasteland in the context of small town America.  That wasteland is much more evident in the big cities, and it’s hard to put a finger on it in within the noise of a cityscape—because everyone is a little neurotic in those places—but to segregate the wasteland motif into the Iowa countryside was dangerous, and accurate.  And the literary gatekeepers let Waller know what they thought of him.

Lucky for us all, Warner Bros has some rebels that have worked there for many years in their film and book publishing divisions that have the imprint of the great Clint Eastwood on them to this day.  Eastwood made all his movies for the most part with Warner Bros. so he has had a large hand in shaping them as a company—culturally.  And to this day, especially in regard to the D.C. comic universe of the Batman, Superman, and Justice League movies, there are some rebel filmmakers who are obvious Ayn Rand fans—and that’s wonderful.  I’d attribute that same trait to the how and why The Bridges of Madison County was published and released with the backing of a major player in entertainment and the content took off brilliantly catapulting Robert James Waller into orbit as one of America’s great writers.  Critics don’t like much that comes out of Warner Bros. for many of the same reasons they don’t like Donald Trump.  It’s also why Warner Bros. still owns the rights to Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and has Zach Snyder working on a treatment for a modern film about that topic, because Warner Bros. is still a studio that gets it—in the closed-door offices away from the entertainment media.  And Robert James Waller was one of their experiments—and a delightful one to emerge.

Waller was an economics professor and he understood business holding a PhD on the topic, but it was his art that he cherished most of all.  He had acute observations about things and had to get them out.  Unlike me, who lives in the days of the blog, Waller was one of the last writers to emerge before the computer generation exploded so getting access to his work required official publications of his written word.  But he wrote things for years fine tuning his thoughts which came to a very fine point in The Bridges of Madison County.  Robert Kincaid in that novel was essentially to an Iowa farmhouse lived in by the desperate love hungry wife of Francesca Johnson, what John Galt was to Dagny Taggart in the American classic Atlas Shrugged.

We are of course talking about “overman” characters here and that’s what critics didn’t like.  They wanted flawed people who were melting with guilt by their middle lives—and certainly not dripping with life passion as they moved beyond the age of 50.  Robert Kincaid was one of those characters and Waller managed to write about different variations of this uninhibited maleness in future novels, never to quite the same effect, but the characteristics were unmistakable.  But while Ayn Rand focused on the exoteric nature of things which eventually led to her creation of the Objectivist philosophy, Waller spent a lot of time with the esoteric, which women tend to reside in.  They love the idea of mystery and a connection to the unknown which is very oriental in its assumptions and the methods of Robert Kincaid were generally attributed to this esoteric nature.

Without question, Robert James Waller was one of the great American writers and I’ll miss the opportunity to read new work from him.  He lived a good life and his novels captured a bit of it in a way that was unique—and lasting.  So when it comes to the vehicle of Robert James Waller, I am sentimental about the many miles it drove and the quality for which it performed and as he dissolves into the esoteric nature of the universe I am glad that for a shining moment in the good ol’ firelight he was made terrestrial and formulated just enough exoteric language to share it with the world and give a voice to the wasteland which resides inside most people—if only for a fleeting moment.

Rich Hoffman


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