- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2010

By Brady Udall
Norton, $26.95 602 pages

Golden Richards lives in an isolated community where responsible churchmen are expected to take more

than one wife. Golden is doing more than his bit with four wives, and 28 kids living in three houses. Beverly, wife No. 1, runs the whole family with strict definitions of “appropriate” behavior and family meetings to determine issues, such as whose bed Golden should share on which night. Sisters Nola and Rose-of-Sharon, wives 2 and 3, run a hairdressing academy, while fourth wife Trish, mother of just one child, Faye, “the weird one,” is desperate to have more children after three stillbirths.

Indeed, she needs more kids if she is to hold up her end in a family and a community where having children is the road to respect and authority. Trouble is, Golden, a giant of a man with a loving heart but none too bright a brain, is dog tired all the time. He’s been selling chunks of the real estate and construction business he inherited, and to avert bankruptcy he’s taken a job 200 miles away in Nevada, where he is building a massive extension to the Pussycat Manor, a bright and busy brothel.

Though guilt-ridden to be working on this sinful site, he has no option if he is to support his family. But supporting his family seems closer to hope than reality. The budget is stretched. Son Rusty says he is trying on his sister’s underclothes because his own are so ratty. This is only one of numerous peccadilloes that keep Rusty permanently in trouble, especially with “witchy woman” Beverly.

What he really wants, of course, is attention. But Golden can give him - or any of his siblings - very little. Rusty’s mother, Rose-of-Sharon, is sliding into a nervous breakdown, and while Golden knows this, he cannot help her any more than he can impregnate Trish. Always out of his depth in his swirling family, Golden is now close to drowning because he is grieving for Glory, a handicapped but especially beloved child. Her death is almost more than he can bear. When relief comes in the shape of Huila, the Guatemalan wife of the brothel owner, his problems are compounded.

Author Brady Udall does a masterly job of describing this whole sorry mess in the first half of “The Lonely Polygamist,” evoking the chaotic lives of big families, sketching kids’ alliances and feuds and their unceasing need to get their share of parental attention. Much of this sense of the children’s life comes from the portrayal of 11-year-old Rusty, known as “the family terrorist” because he’s always in trouble. Rusty bounds off the pages as a lovable - if hard-to-handle - kid. When tragedy overtakes him, readers root for him as fervently as the four “mothers” who look after him.

Mr. Udall also writes part of his tale from the perspectives of Trish, the youngest and most beautiful wife. Easily overlooked at first, Trish develops credibly as she thinks through the pros and cons of living in a polygamous household. Will she leave it or won’t she becomes a serious and interesting question rather than an open-and-shut case.

Mr. Udall’s talent for sketching characters extends to the supporting cast. Ted Leo, the brothel owner and his henchman, Nelson, are truly frightening. June Haymaker, handyman extraordinaire and survivalist, is convincingly quirky; Nola the essence of gutsiness. These descriptive talents, evidenced also in his evocation of the topography, colors and climate of the desert makes the first half of “The Lonely Polygamist” fascinating reading because of the insight the story gives into life in a polygamous household.

But once this has been established, the emphasis on Golden’s unhappiness hogs too much of the center stage. Mr. Udall’s solution to this is to create a rather tiresome cascade of problems in the second half of the novel, when Ted Leo discovers Golden and Huila have been meeting. Since the conflicts are not entirely convincing to begin with, they become tedious.

Indeed, there’s a sun-and-shade patchiness to “The Lonely Polygamist.” Its brilliant stretches include the description of Glory’s life and death and the horrifying account of the testing of a 70-kiloton atomic weapon called Roy, whose mushroom cloud “boiled over the last ridge, full of strange sparkling bits of light” and rained thousands of particles of plutonium oxide on Golden and Beverly on their wedding day. The presence of the test sites and of radioactive ores is felt throughout the novel, suggesting the outrageousness of human activities, but paradoxically, also the fragility and transience of people.

But much in the novel remains shadowy. With the exception of Trish, the portraits of the wives are underdeveloped, and this becomes problematical when Beverly’s earlier life is belatedly revealed, and Rose-of-Sharon, who at first seems Nola’s contented sidekick, ends up in a mental hospital.

Huila, too, has some early moments in the spotlight, but never gets enough authorial attention to clarify her feelings for Golden. Perhaps more fundamentally, “The Lonely Polygamist” begins with detailed, often funny, descriptions of polygamous life, but rather than exploring it in its variety and depth, segues into an affirmation of families and fatherhood that sadly deserves the cliched descriptor “heartwarming,” but is less than satisfying either as an exploration or as narrative. Indeed, the lack of a tight narrative structure lets this 602-page novel wander into loose-baggy territory that could have been sidestepped by some energetic editing.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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