The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

Posted: May 6, 2010 in Book Reviews
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The word polygamist brings to mind the image of a man with multiple wives, several children, a family that could likely fill three houses.  Place an adverb like lonely before it, and you might begin to wonder how a man in this situation could feel that way.  The title of Brady Udall’s second novel, The Lonely Polygamist, gets the reader thinking before he or she even cracks open the book, hinting at both the story’s premise and its emotional stakes.

Meet Golden Richards: a large man—six-foot-six—with a large family—4 wives, 27 (living) children.  When you add up the long list of problems he faces, it’s easy to understand why he feels, “once or twice each day, that he might be losing his mind.”  First off, his family is falling apart, divided literally—the family is unevenly distributed into three houses—and psychologically—the wives jockey for both position and time spent with Golden, while the children form alliances with each other, casting aside the ones that don’t belong.  And this couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Golden’s finances are drying up—not the ideal situation when you’re trying to support a family of 32—and he’s forced to take a job 200 miles away, which prevents him from being around his family and maintaining order.  He’s falling out of favor with the church and worries what the consequences are if the community and his family find out that he’s constructing a brothel at this job site.

While he’s away at work, he begins to develop feelings for his boss’s wife, Huila. She represents the life he could be living, if it weren’t for his religious practices.  “Huila was different simply because he—he—had chosen her and she, by some miraculous coincidence, had chosen him.”

But one of the most heart wrenching aspects of Golden Richards is his connection to Glory, Daughter #9, whose tragic death years earlier still causes him regret, shame, and an unbearable sense of loss.

All of these surface-level and emotional conflicts weigh on Golden’s mind, causing him to close himself off from his family.  He tries to solve his problems alone, asking little help from his family, in hopes to keep his deepest secrets hidden.  When he adds it all up, “he has no idea what to do about any of it.”

In terms of craft, one of the most impressive feats Udall pulls off is how he develops characters when there’s such a large cast, without confusing the reader or clouding the story.  Udall weaves together the narratives of three characters—Golden, of course; Trish, wife number four; and Rusty, Golden’s eleven-year-old son—all of whom share feelings of abandonment and neglect, as well as grapple with the sense that they’re outsiders within their own family.

When we’re first introduced to Trish, she arrives at the Virgin County Academy of Hair Design—which is run by Golden’s second wife—to find all of her sister wives there.  While she’s getting her hair shampooed, the wives ambush her and request that she forfeit her upcoming scheduled time with Golden.  It seems like less of a request, though, and more like an order.  The fourth and youngest wife, she’s there simply to offer balance to the family.  In turn, she’s often disregarded.

Not by Rusty, though—the “weird” one, the loner, the boy who sifts through his sisters’ underwear drawers and the locks the family out of the house when he’s forced to share his birthday with his father.  His infatuation with Trish causes him to construct a scheme that will bring them together.  While his relationship with Golden is compared to Golden’s relationship with his father, Rusty doesn’t react the same way to neglect that Golden did.  Instead of yearning for the father-son connection, Rusty strives for more distance between them.  The result of which ends in disaster.

Udall shows compassion for his characters by focusing on what they think and how they react to their circumstances, rather than vilifying their beliefs.  Polygamy serves as context for the premise, and not the heart of the story.  Because first and foremost, Udall is a storyteller.  This isn’t to say that his prose lacks elegance or can be considered simplistic.  Absolutely not.  The writing is crisp and flows at a smooth clip, blending humor with the heartbreaking tenderness of what it means to be a family.  The language doesn’t distract the reader from the story; rather, it enhances the content of the narratives.  Expect to see this book on several top ten lists at year’s end.  It’s both a compelling story and a work of art.

W.W. Norton & Company
May 3, 2010
$26.95 hardcover

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