Brady Udall’s novel The Lonely Polygamist is one of those pieces of fiction where you stare at the jacket summary and think: “Okay, Big Shot. You mean to tell me that you have written a story about a man, his four wives, 28 children and mistress? I dare you to pull off this circus stunt without burying me beneath a two-ton clown car filled with the note cards I’ll be forced to keep to differentiate these characters.”
Friends, he succeeds. First Udall weeds the crops, probably realizing that managing the ticks and clacks, hair color and hobbies of 34 characters would be like separating pieces of pudding. He boils it down to the patriarch Golden, a quiet gentle giant who is feeling the weight of supporting this menagerie and their three homes with his failing construction business; Trish, the hot pants newbie to the wife fest, with a colorful past, and a creepily religious daughter from a previous marriage; Rusty, an 11-year-old misfit, a horn dog who curiously tests his sisters’ underwear, and is referred to as the family terrorist; Beverly, the first wife on the block, who is a regimented wealth of graphs, maps and flow charts, and signs that remind family members to wipe their feet, remove their shoes, not sprinkle when they tinkle, etc. The rest of the fold is in the periphery, with a few recurring names and groupings: Pet, Fig Newton, The Three Stooges, The Twins.
Golden has taken a long-distance assignment to build a brothel for a sort of mafia-esque character in Nevada. (He tells his family and the other members of the church council that he is building a church). He spends most of his work week living out of an airstream camper near the work site, sort of celebrating the reprieve from the chaos of home. One day he spots a woman bathing in a small body of water, and he falls in love with her, returning often to wait for her and/or spy on her. Shortly after his boss man, the bipolar and decently armed Ted Leo shows him an area filled with abandoned hubs in the middle of the desert, an abandoned something that no one else seems to know about, Golden realizes that he is lusting over Ted Leo’s wife Huila. Uh oh.
Back at home, Rusty’s social awkwardness keeps landing him in solitary lock up. And sister wife Trish is reading Cosmo for sex tips involving minty gum. Beverly has a nagging cough, another wife hopeful is waiting in the wings. Rusty has befriended an outsider with a secret stash of gun powder, and has big plans to rearrange the family dynamics — perhaps even bone his sexy aunt Trish.
The main characters’ pasts are also revealed in brief satellites dropped into the main plot. Golden’s lonely childhood — which eventually sent him looking for his lost father and joining into the polygamist fray. Trish, who was part of a plyg family growing up, until her father died and the wives scattered. There is also a story involving the death of Glory, who was the physically handicapped daughter of Golden and Beverly. And another death, baby Jack, who was born of Golden and Trish baby batter.
This is a really nice story, something that could have loomed large and imposing, but it seems to have been written carefully but in a way that looks easy. There is an on-running sub sub sub plot involving the old gum-caught-in-pubic hair trick that is a little tiring, and a few Huhs? in terms of character continuity. But for the most part, The Lonely Polygamist is a satisfying simmer of a read and a nice take on a non-traditional family that seems pretty freaking traditional from up close.