'Lonely Polygamist' bursts with empathy and angst
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Brady Udall's new book is funny, touching and powerful. Its images tickle and glow, disturb and soothe. Sprawling, ambitious, and assured, Mr. Udall's first novel since his 2001 debut, "The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint," bursts with language and originality.
He writes from within the heads and hearts of many different kinds of characters with such authority and empathy, you're eager to know the whereabouts of his School of Wisdom and Wonder.
Golden Richards, the man of the title, is an Everyman with four wives, 28 children, and counting. The wives span the range from the beautiful, yearning Trish, the youngest, to Nola, Trish's confidante, the hypersensitive Rose-of-Sharon, a clandestine fan of romance novels; and Beverly, the original, the one with the past.
They live in two houses so jammed that Golden runs out of gas and becomes a stranger to himself. His escape valve is an affair with a woman he meets during a break from his job as contractor for an addition to a brothel in Nevada.
Not only does he have to keep the affair secret, he has to lie about his work; telling the wives he's building a senior citizen center. The author erects this house of cards masterfully, interweaving the affair with visions of nuclear apocalypse, the hidden, competitive agenda of the wives, the tragedy of damaged children and the bonds that preserve a community dedicated to the principle of polygamy.
The key child is Rose's son Rusty, the "plyg kid" who drives the plot nearly as much as his dad. When this "family terrorist" hooks up with the wonderfully named June Haymaker, a handyman with a taste for explosives, Rusty carries on a tradition that serves as subplot:
Golden's father, Royal, was a uranium prospector who loved explosions, particularly ones of atomic bombs in the Nevada desert near Virgin, the Mormon settlement where the Richardses live.
Like Royal, Rusty loves explosives. Like Royal, he is affected by them. Past and present twine in epic fashion in this singularly tall, profoundly American tale, so rich but not at all overstuffed.
The book shifts tone easily, accumulating gravity along the way. Golden's affair starts as infatuation but escalates rapidly, complicated by his relationship with Ted Leo, the brothel owner and his boss. The garish Leo is the only character always addressed by full name, giving him special weight.
There's sorrow, too, in the children the family loses, particularly Glory, Beverly's abnormal daughter, whom Golden at first avoids, then comes to cherish and miss. There's also Jack, stillborn to Trish and Golden. And there's Rusty, whose fate I leave the reader to discover.
At first, I couldn't understand why Golden was the core of the book. He's awkward, fails at most everything he tries his hand at, can't express himself or get out of his own way, and is so scared of his own strength he comes off like a coward.
But "The Lonely Polygamist" is so layered I came to like, even admire, Golden for staying so true to himself. Anybody who can handle chewing gum like he does is distinctively self-possessed, after all. Read this. It's a sure bet for Great American Novel of 2010.
First Published May 26, 2010 12:00 am