By Wendy Smith
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; C02
THE LONELY POLYGAMIST
By Brady Udall
Norton. 602 pp. $26.95
In Brady Udall's audacious, frequently funny new novel, the polygamous patriarch is just a poor, henpecked schmo. Golden Richards has four wives and 28 children. The only way he can (sometimes) remember all the kids' names is by singing a list of them under his breath to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare." His wives are easy to keep straight. Rigid, repressive Beverly, Mother No. 1, rules over 10 children in the Old House, laying down the law about "living the Principle" with a certainty that Golden finds both intimidating and enviable. He wandered into the outlawed fundamentalist brand of Mormonism at 19, when his long-absent father summoned Golden to Utah to share the riches from his uranium strike and the serenity of his newfound faith. Beverly was to be dad's first plural wife, until he had cancer diagnosed and bequeathed her to his son. Forever in need of "someone to explain to him exactly what to do," Golden complied, and Beverly has been running his life ever since.
But even though she selected them, the other wives fail to emulate Beverly's righteous lifestyle. Mothers No. 2 and No. 3 share the Big House with 17 out-of-control kids. Down-to-earth Nola is unruffled by the chaos; her shrinking, submissive "sister-wife" (and actual sister) Rose takes refuge in romance novels and the occasional nervous breakdown. Much younger Mother No. 4, Trish, has her own house and a single child, but she's lonely and desperate for sex. Golden keeps missing his appointed nights with her -- scheduled by the wives, of course -- and when she does get him alone, he usually falls asleep.
Udall's blunt, empathetic portrait paints the polygamist as a beleaguered and bewildered Everyman. Golden can't keep his three households from warring with one another, let alone make their inhabitants happy. He's being pressured by his mentor in the church to take a fifth wife he doesn't want and can't afford. His construction business is faltering in the economic doldrums of the late 1970s, and his fellow apostles will only think worse of him if they learn the real nature of his current job: building an addition to a brothel 200 miles away in Nevada.
There, Golden falls in love with Huila, wife of the PussyCat Manor's bullying, bad-tempered owner. In a life governed by overwhelming responsibilities that Golden assented to rather than sought, "Huila was different simply because he -- he -- had chosen her." The leisurely narrative pace quickens, and the tone darkens, after the brothel owner discovers his wife's affair and sends his goons to Utah to threaten Golden's family.
Telling a story that perpetually unsettles our expectations, Udall whipsaws between moods and roves among points of view. A flashback to Golden and Beverly's wedding day has them picnicking in the aftermath of an atom-bomb test whose radioactive fallout has lasting consequences for the Richards family. The memory of a beloved daughter crippled by cerebral palsy haunts Golden, but the chapters conveying his perspective are generally comic, emphasizing the human fallibility of someone who's supposed to be a divinely ordained leader. Meanwhile, Trish's observations delineate power struggles among the wives that will be familiar to viewers of the HBO show "Big Love."
The novel's saddest portions center on confused, vulnerable Rusty, "The Family Terrorist" and the only one of Golden's offspring given an individual voice. As demonstrated in his first novel, "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint," Udall excels at getting inside the head of an unhappy boy. Rusty's wrenching interior monologues spotlight polygamy's painful impact on children.
Some critics have described Udall as a contemporary successor to the black humorists of the 1960s, and it could be seen as a sick joke to have Rusty's desire for personal attention fulfilled by sustaining a hideous injury. Yet the closing scenes resonate with extraordinary tenderness, even as the author continues to take big risks. He invites us to exult as Golden asserts his patriarchal authority, and Trish reaffirms her commitment to "the crowded life she had chosen . . . by its very definition, divided and shared and shared again." For a happy ending, Udall gives us -- what else? -- a polygamous wedding ceremony. It's nervy and unnerving, and it will work for readers willing to consider the possibility that his characters are affirming a credo of universal appeal: "that love was no finite commodity."
Smith is a frequent contributor to Book World.