At one point near the middle of THE LONELY POLYGAMIST, the
narrator steps back to outline the “big picture” of the
dilemmas besetting the title character, family man Golden
“1. The father has feelings for his boss’s
2. His own wives are giving up on him.
3. His family is falling apart.
4. His finances are drying up.
5. He has a condom in his wallet and large clump of gum in his
6. He has no idea what to do about any of it.”
This list, as seemingly tongue-in-cheek as it is, perfectly
distills the combination of humor and pathos that characterizes all
of Brady Udall’s second novel, even as it also sums up its
plot in a neat little package. But, just in case you’re
looking for something more out of a review than a six-item list
lifted from the book itself, let me tell you a bit more about THE
Golden Richards is obviously more than just a “family
man.” He’s a four-family man, married to four different
women and father to 28 children. His wives bicker among themselves,
drawing Golden into their family squabbles, annoyed attention an
acceptable substitute for genuine affection. Golden is a
contractor, and lonely nights spent in his Airstream trailer at a
job site is, in many ways, a welcome respite from the rigid
schedules and incessant demands of his real homes.
Lately, Golden has been working on constructing a brand-new,
state-of-the-art brothel in the Nevada desert. The prostitutes who
work there provide plenty of distractions for the men on his crew;
for Golden himself, however, the main fascination is with the
mysterious woman he calls Weela, whom he glimpses washing her
clothes in the river. Weela is not a prostitute, but she does
represent a threat to his commitment to the Principle, the
Meanwhile, Golden’s youngest and newest wife, Trish, is
trying hard to negotiate her own place in the family --- and in
Golden’s bed and his heart. His 11-year-old son Rusty, known
as “The Family Terrorist,” is trying to manufacture the
whole family’s self-destruction. And Golden himself is
haunted by memories of one particular daughter, the one whose name
he never has had trouble remembering, the one who reminded him of
the joys of fatherhood --- and of its tragedies.
HBO’s series “Big Love” has started a
conversation of sorts about polygamy, as the show illustrates an
unconventional family that nevertheless offers viewers much to
ponder about marriage, fidelity, temptation, loyalty and balance.
THE LONELY POLYGAMIST suggests many of these same themes, to be
sure. At what point is taking another wife more noble than
adultery? Can a good man love more than one woman? Are humans meant
to be monogamous?
But Udall’s terrifically thought-provoking novel goes far
beyond the television series in the way that great fiction always
can --- by providing a real window into the interior realms not
only of Golden himself but of many of the people who make up his
life. In carefully wrought, small scenes and tiny moments, Udall
illustrates Golden’s tired attempts to make sense of his own
chaotic life and shows how a man who, by design, is almost
ceaselessly surrounded with family, still nevertheless can be
fundamentally alone, questioning and vulnerable.
Udall offers these keen moments of perception, interspersed with
glimpses of the “big picture” within which
Golden’s family drama plays out, resulting in a constantly
shifting but marvelously controlled story.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 30, 2010
The Lonely Polygamist