What a title, huh? Makes you think to yourself, “A lonely polygamist? I call shenanigans!” But here we have it: forty-five year old Golden Richards, husband to four wives and twenty-eight children, alone with his emotions amongst his enormous, distracted family, spread over his three homes and his construction business, working out of town building something he has not been entirely honest about. He is still battling with the grief of losing his beloved daughter, Glory, and is now facing an entirely unexpected set of circumstances: not-so-holy emotions towards his boss’ wife.
I adore a good dysfunctional family drama, and having the family be of this scale made me almost delirious with anticipation. Luckily, Udall did not disappoint, and The Lonely Polygamist is excellent; the book as vast in size as the family therein, but you’ll still finish it wanting more of the Richards clan. There are Golden’s wives: terrifying “witchy-woman” Beverly; the ever laughing Nola; Rose-of-Sharon, who deals with the noise and clamour of the family by wearing earmuffs and teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown; and the most recent wife, Trish, young and beautiful and bewildered by her circumstances. Then there are the children, from ages seventeen to three, neatly listed in a family tree in the front of the book, and spoken as a mantra by Golden so he can remember them: Em, Nephi, Helaman, Josephine, Naomi, Pauline, Novella, Parley, Sybil, Deeanne, Gale, Alvin, Rusty, Clifton, Glory, Herschel, Martin, Boo, Wayne, Faye, Teague, Louise, Fig Newton, Darling, Sariah, Jame-o, Ferris, Pet. Udall, like Golden, does not have time to fully get to know each child, but we can feel them in the book, a roaring wave of siblings all clamouring for attention from their father and mothers.
Surprisingly for a book about Mormon families following a fundamentalist philosophy, there is very little of God in the book. For our main characters, Golden, Trish, and Rusty (son #5, and otherwise known as “The Family Terrorist”), their lifestyles weren’t something they came to by fervent religion but by accident or birth: Golden finds that the father that ran away during his youth has joined the church, and stays rather than return to his angry mother; Trish is running with her daughter from her old husband and craves the life of her childhood, with family members spilling out of every room; Rusty is born into this life, and, at eleven, doesn’t have much choice, despite being desperate to escape.
In Rusty’s sneaky journeys away from his overwhelming family, he meets June Haymaker, twenty-seven, maker of explosives and fireworks and builder of his own bomb shelter. And in Golden’s clandestine new job, he meets his untrustworthy boss, the unstable Ted Leo. June and Ted unwittingly change the life of the Richards clan and send this oversized and fantastic book into dangerous territory.
It’s difficult to condense this book into a short explanation. Golden abandons his family for his new interstate job and stays there in his trailer hiding from the world; he can’t even pretend to deal with his wives and children anymore; he is contemplating an affair. Even so, he remains somehow endearing, enormous and goofy, helpless in the face of all the stronger personalities around him. Trish lives with her only biological daughter, Faye, in a duplex away from the rest of the family, and waits impatiently for the time she has allocated with her husband, which he inevitably won’t turn up for. Rusty channels Holden Caulfield, his portions of the book told from the point of view of an angry and neglected mid-seventies child: he is in a frenzy of sexual tension, aimed mostly at his beloved mother-aunt Trish; he says What a gyp! as much as Holden spouts off about phoneys. He invents a new life for himself for June, calling himself Lance and keeping quiet about his, ahem, different lifestyle. He wishes desperately for his mother, Rose-of-Sharon, to get past her mental illness and show him some affection. Your heart will ache for all of them as they cope poorly with their lives, living on small shreds of hope: that they will be able to make the right decision; that they will be able to spend time with their husband; that they will be loved.
With an ominous backdrop of nuclear explosions in the Nevada desert, The Lonely Polygamist is really just a fantastic read; I enjoyed it more than I can express. I am waiting, despite all logic, for the twenty-seven sequels that delve into the lives of each child. Why is Ferris so intent on nuding up all the time? Why does Jame-o have such a helpless love for the Hoover, which he takes everywhere with them? I would gladly read six hundred pages on every single child if Brady Udall was the one wielding the pen. Don’t let the size of the book overwhelm you like it almost did to me; I’m going to be annoying everyone I know (or don’t) into reading it, and if we’re on a present-giving basis with each other, don’t be surprised to find it on your doorstep for your next birthday.