Book Review: “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall

May 1, 2010

Brady Udall is trying to stay out of the way. His new novel is about a Fundamentalist paterfamilias with 28 kids and 4 wives, naively blundering into motley hijinx and hatching adolescent longings for the boss’ wife, backing himself into a web of lies and an imminent family showdown that builds up for most of the book’s nearly 600 pages.

In a world with so many characters and so much potential for emotional damage, Udall steers the narrative ship by removing himself from the thread: the momentum of the whirling plot creates its own little galaxy and he remains predominantly hands-off with his three main narrators (Golden, the patriarch; Rusty, the uncharismatic and totally sympathetic, ignored kid; Trish, the youngest and most, frankly, dull of the wives).

Of course, this is fiction, so beyond noting the naturalistic style of writing, claiming that Udall is not present is fallacious. But what he bends backwards to do, with eerie success, is the avoidance of even the literary equivalent of an subtle eyebrow raising: never once does the remotest sense of moral judgment leak into the book that isn’t a product of a specific character’s outlook.

Thus, the jostlings of the 28 offspring and the drama of the competition between the four wives just unfolds, without much intrusive commentary.

The parts of the story that draw one in, though, are the parts where Udall is present. The juxtaposition of the family’s formation in Utah–the bulk of the action takes place in the 1970s, but has tentacles reaching back earlier–against the nearby atomic bomb tests is surreal and vivid, even if the ultimate outcome is a bit heavy-handed. There are some nice passages about grief and duty, and Udall keeps enough plotty curveballs zinging to keep things moving.

The plight of Rusty, middling and forgotten child, is borderline heartrending in the chapters where Udall lets himself get involved. Here’s a kid whose father barely knows his name, who is weird and lonely, starting to self-destruct at the age of 11. The other siblings, who get a rather distant treatment (then again, there are 27 of them, and giving them all a solid dose of humanity might be an impossibility), seem infuriatingly average and well-adjusted, even given their various infirmities. Meanwhile, we’re seeing polygamist life in a non-sensational context; the stuff of this family’s grief is as quotidian as anyone’s.

And then there’s Golden, the hub of all of this, whose main characteristic is his lack of much personality and physical heft. He’s left grappling with various crises that tend to come to a head at rather deus ex machina moments (perhaps purposeful in their divine intervention feel). It feels more like things are happening to Golden than anything, he doesn’t seem like an active force as much as a passive one.

How lovely to sit under the lowering sky, the dead grass whisking his ankles, with springtime coming on and a feeling in his heart of imminent disaster.

It is this sense of dread and a forthcoming battle that ties much of the book together. Raymond, a neighbor’s insane ostrich, watches over the family trysts and tragedies. In dire straits, Golden fights the bird in an absurd desperation, not unlike Jacob wrestling the angel. Children die and radioactive fallout sears lives. Golden’s construction business atrophies; his job site is a brothel, not the old folks’ home he claims to his sundry wives and associates. It’s an organic, glorious mess that has nowhere to go but woe.

The climax is a wallop. Perhaps it had to happen this way: something massive had to give for there to be redemption for so many lives. The Lonely Polygamist is a long, sinuous trip through the valley of death and back again. With a (possibly) supernatural ostrich to boot.

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program

My many thanks again to LibraryThing for their Early Reviewer program, as well as W.W. Norton. The Lonely Polygamist will be released on May 3, 2010.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

4.0 stars
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