Brady Udall's saga of a family and their father in _The Lonely Polygamist_

Aug 16, 2010
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Interesting characters, and some good comedy mixed in with the tragedy.

Cons:Way over the top in places, but when it's this good, who cares?

The Bottom Line: A novel that truly surprised me with the emotional impact, comedy and sorrow, and great writing. Not for everyone, but certainly worth it for me.

Every now and then I am taken in by a novel right from the start. Such was the case of Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist, about a family in the southern Utah town of Virgin, and what happens when things hit a crisis point and it seems that nothing can be salvaged.

Golden Richards, six foot six, blond and blue-eyed, is hitting the wall in his mid-forties. As the patriarch, of sorts, of the Richards family, with four wives, and nearly thirty children, his life has become a circling galaxy of chaos, endlessly spinning around him in a whirlwind of not enough time, not enough attention, not enough money, not enough of anything. And he simply cannot cope any more, shuttling around his multiple homes, trying to make a living by construction, and knowing that he's making a complete failure at it.

Wife number one, Beverley, is just about Golden's age, and what she says goes, in her strict, no-nonsense way. She rules with an iron fist, and doesn't bother with the velvet glove, and keeps the brood of unruly children in check. She also gets to decide which wife will get to spend what night with Golden, and runs her little empire from the Old House, a turreted Victorian mansion. Wives number two and three, Nola and Rose-of-Sharon, are sisters, sharing the Big House, a massive structure that was alas, not quite designed right. Nola copes with surprising good humour and a hearty laugh, while Rose seeks solace in her forbidden stash of romance novels. And in the Duplex, a ratty structure that is starting to go to pieces, is Trish, wife number four, nursing her heartaches over a lost infant and the fact that she is the very last in the pecking order.

Then there is Rusty, one of the sons in the Big House, who is the lucky recipient of the latest endevour to bring about solidarity by sending him to live with Beverley's clutch in the Old House. Unfortunately, Rusty is less than thrilled and what with the lack of attention, rebelliousness, and sheer bloody mindedness to get even with his tormentors, aches to get even. And then some.

Finally, there is the Pussycat Manor, which is going through an expansion process in nearby Nevada, home of gambling and prostitutes. Normally, as a good Mormon, Golden wouldn't go near the place, but the construction contract is a lucrative one, and he can't pass it by. Besides, living out on the construction site in a wobbly Airstream trailer gives him some peace and quiet from the incessant demands at home. And for now, it all seems to be working.

That is, until Golden meets a beautiful woman out for an evening stroll...

Whew. What a ride this was! I was hooked from the start with this novel, finding Golden to be a very sympathetic character and following his childhood in the deep South, one of deprivation and lost dreams, until he makes it to Utah and a reunion with his rascal, no good father, Royal, who has converted to fundamentalist LDS beliefs, and is determined to live The Principal -- being a polygamist -- to the hilt after hitting it big in a windfall.

The time shifts around a bit as well, and we get to see the various sorrows and heartaches that the family has gone through. Two of the stories that really hit me were that of Glory -- and that is all I am going to say about it here -- and of Roy the Bomb. Those of you who are already familiar with southern Utah and the legacy known as the downwinders will know what I am talking about. I have to say that I could not stop reading at that section, finding it too terrifying and very powerful to put the book down.

That's one of the big points here about Udall's writing -- it's very immediate, and draws the reader right in, until I could see and taste and feel what his characters were experiencing. To me, that's a sign of damn fine writing, and if a novelist can do that, well, I'm there. Being a former resident of Utah and the southwest, the territory here is familiar to me, and Brady Udall has caught it beautifully, from the stark beauty of desert nights, to the ever present feel of crushing poverty there.

While some readers may be shocked by the setting of the book, a man who is after all, breaking the law in having four wives, and moreover, four wives that know each other and seemingly at peace with it, the characters are all sympathetic. Each of them have miseries of their own, and we get to see that unhappiness in all of its clarity, but to leaven it, there were scenes in the story that had me howling with laughter at the sheer moment, and the feeling of being there. That to me is one of the signs of a good writer who knows that there has to always be good and bad mixed in together.

It's that feeling of the everyday blended in with the unusual and catastrophic that makes this story work. We might not agree with Golden's lifestyle or his choices, but we can certainly feel for him. This was a great read for me, and one that I can cheerfully recommend to anyone not scared away by the subject matter. Four and a half stars rounded up to five, and worth the time to sit down and take it in. Very much recommended.

The Lonely Polygamist
Brady Udall
2010; W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
ISBN 978-0-393-06262-5

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