When you hear a book title like The Lonely Polygamist, you think that you're going to be served a big fat slice of melodrama pie, that reading it will be like watching an entire season of Big Love in one sitting or watching a tear-jerker TV special on Warren Jeffs. And sure enough, there's a lot going on here. In the 600+ pages of this novel we are treated to religious fanaticism, adultery, prostitution, untimely death, and even atomic bomb explosions in the Utah desert.Ultimately, though, this unique novel about a 1970s polygamist family is deeply human. And it's about something that all of us can relate to - loneliness, and the search for connections.
The titular polygamist, Golden Richards, is far from the only one who's lonely. Even though they have an implausibly large family - consisting of no less than twenty-six children, four wives, and one husband - almost all of the Richards are lonely in their own way. Surprisingly, at least for those of us who can't really understand the whys and wherefores of polygamy, it's all too easy to relate to this family. Udall's masterful writing shows us that each of them is filled with the doubts and desires that we all have experienced.
The characters who figure most largely in the action of the novel are Golden, his youngest wife Trish, and Golden's son Rusty, who is known, fairly or not, as the family `terrorist.' As the story begins, Golden is starting to feel crushed by the weight of his responsibilities, as his family continues to grow and his construction company continues to shrink. He is also consumed by mourning for his young daughter Glory, who died in a tragic accident a few years earlier. Meanwhile, Trish feels completely isolated from the rest of the Richards brood. She joined the family after suffering two miscarriages so that she could escape her sorrow in the raucousness of a large family. After losing another baby, though, she feels more alone than ever. She lives in a town house, and spends quiet days with her one living daughter - a "creepy" tot by the name of Faye, who is happiest when she's `communing' with her dead siblings. Rusty, Golden's son, also feels isolated and unloved. He is a child who can remember being alone with his father a grand total of twice. He responds to his loneliness, as most children do, by acting out.
Over the course of the novel, these characters, and the other members of the Richards clan, begin to move intractably toward disaster. Golden is working on an illicit construction project - the expansion of a whore house - that he has to hide from his wives and the church elders, and he begins an affair with a young Guatemalan woman, who is married to his boss. When the boss finds out he begins to stalk Golden, threatening his wives and his children. Meanwhile, Rusty and Trish grow close to a young man named June, who makes a hobby of exploding things out in the desert. All of these events conspire to bring the family closer and closer to the brink. until something happens that shakes them to their very core, changing everything forever.
An aspect of the novel that's worth mentioning here is the fascinating material the author has included about the atomic bomb testing that went on in Utah in the 1950s. Udall seamlessly intertwines the historical details of these events with the events of the novel - for example, Golden and his first wife, Beverly, are having their first picnic as a married couple when they are injured by the massive fallout of one of the bombs. I was at turns shocked, outraged, and awed by this `side story,' and I think it makes for a worthy inclusion. It only speaks to Udall's considerable talents that he's able to make this material such an integral part of the tale. The violence of the bomb foreshadows a much smaller-scale explosion that occurs at the end of the novel, and, in a larger sense, it is symbolic of the helplessness that all of the novel's characters feel. They are unable to protect themselves from the bomb, and are equally unable to protect themselves from the peculiar twists of fate that rule their lives.
For me, The Lonely Polygamist went by all too quickly.. Which is something to be said for a long novel. I didn't agree with some of the choices the author made, and was disappointed by the novel's ending, but when all's said and done, you should read this book. The destination won't please everyone, but it makes for one hell of a ride.
Golden Richards, husband to four wives, father to twenty-eight children, is having the mother of all midlife crises. His construction business is failing, his family has grown into an overpopulated mini-dukedom beset with insurrection and rivalry, and he is done in with grief: due to the accidental death of a daughter and the stillbirth of a son, he has come to doubt the capacity of his own heart. Brady Udall, one of our finest American fiction writers, tells a tragicomic story of a deeply faithful man who, crippled by grief and the demands of work and family, becomes entangled in an affair that threatens to destroy his family's future. Like John Irving and Richard Yates, Udall creates characters that engage us to the fullest as they grapple with the nature of need, love, and belonging.