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Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend

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Heard the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter? Correction, make that the traveling photographer and the farmer’s wife. He stopped by to ask directions, see, while the hubby and kids were off at the state fair. ”I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea,” he told her. And instead of dousing him with a bucket of Iowa spring water or ringing up the sheriff, Francesca Johnson doused herself with a bucket of Wind Song and invited him in for a, pardon the expression, roll in the hay.

And a memorable roll it was: ”The leopard swept over her, again and again and yet again, like a long prairie wind, and rolling beneath him, she rode on that wind like some temple virgin toward the sweet, compliant fires marking the soft curve of oblivion.” Now, we’re talking about a 45-year-old temple virgin here, you understand. Not some perky young filly like the heroine of any of a thousand paperback romance novels devoured like cotton candy every year. No doubt it was the combination of Francesca’s age, her anxiety over her fading beauty, and her status as the hitherto faithful, postorgasmic wife of a TV-holic who treated her like a bale of alfalfa that turned an embarrassingly silly little novel like The Bridges of Madison County into the publishing phenomenon of 1992-93, with more than one million hardback copies in print.

After a few days of cavorting around the barnyard, Francesca sends her ”shamanlike” lover, Robert Kincaid, packing and sticks by Farmer Johnson and the kids. To thousands of fortysomething women who buy the bulk of the hardback fiction here in the United States of America, Francesca’s sacrifice turned the whole thing into a permissible fantasy: forbidden passion and eternal love with no bitter aftertaste. The airport scene in Casablanca with cows instead of gendarmes.

Comes now the second Waller novel, and evidence that even the author, as the saying goes, ”just doesn’t get it.” Ignore all the lyrical flapdoodle that will doubtless attend the publication of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend (Warner, $16.95) and what have you got? Why, a novel about adultery in academe, which seems to have taken its inspiration from the Chuck Berry classic ”Brown-eyed Handsome Man.” You remember the song: It talks about a judge’s wife who threatens the local district attorney with his job if he doesn’t free a certain handsome man. Except that in the case of protagonist Michael Tillman, an economics prof at an unnamed college in Iowa, it’s the dean’s wife who protects him.

”Michael, you’ve got balls,” she tells him at the Christmas party, and he demonstrates his manliness by stomping out his cigarette butts in the dean’s driveway. ”The rest of ’em are eunuchs.” We’re talking James Dean with a Ph.D. here, folks, a brilliant, motorcycle-driving rebel with tenure. So anyhow, one of the eunuchs in his department is married to this absolute babe named Jellie. (Don’t ask.) No sooner does Michael spot her gorgeous mane of jet-black hair than he’s ”wondering how it would feel to grab a big handful of it and bend her over the dean’s kitchen table right then and there.” Next to a stallion like Michael Tillman, Jellie’s poor husband hasn’t got a chance. ”Jimmy does not have a truly fine intellect,” she explains to Tillman. ”You scare Jimmy. He knows he’s not in your league.” Thrown together in a passionate campaign to save the campus duck pond from bulldozers, Jellie and Michael cannot deny their desires. Next thing you know, Jellie’s in flight to India to get her head together, with Michael in hot pursuit. (Don’t ask.) The wimp stays in Iowa, teaching his classes and wringing his hands.

This reviewer would never dream of giving away the ending, except to observe that Waller seems to imagine that the wild success of Bridges was basically about the hunk and that what millions of American women hanker for is a whole lot more testosterone in a mate—and hang the consequences. Wrong! Back in the ’70s, Erich Segal wrote a sequel to his tearjerker, Love Story, but nobody remembers the title. C-