June 2010

Emma Kat Richardson

fiction

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

Truly, for the non-religiously minded (and even those of us who identify with more than a trace of hostility thus), there are few ideas as blatantly abhorrent as the concept of polygamy. More specifically, the ideological and (or so they lay claim to) Biblically justified notion of American polygamy is perhaps responsible for more ruffled feathers, enacted legislation, and systematic cultural ire than nearly any other divisive issue of faith plaguing our theology-fetishizing nation.

Of course, most American citizens residing far removed from the confines of the Utah state border uphold little to no familiarity with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and even less so an acquaintance with its ultra-authoritarian counterpart, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (The former is most commonly known by the popular abbreviation LDS; the latter by, fittingly, FLDS.) As a middle-American guide to the never-dull world of practicing FLDS members, most of whom engage in the much-maligned custom of polygamy (the Principle, they call it, in accordance with the original commandments of Mormonism’s founder and godfather, Joseph Smith), we have Brady Udall’s epic The Lonely Polygamist.

Indeed, the third fictional offering from Udall bears a title nearly as perplexing as the religiously motivated lifestyle choices explored by the volume’s prose therein. In a nuclear family that comprises four female spouses, a staggering 28 mixed gender offspring, one bumbling, well-intentioned patriarch and his faithful -- if continence-challenged -- pooch, where exactly does this hodgepodge of characters leave room for the notion of loneliness? If anything, any individual sporting the least bit of rationality (raised in a two-parent or one-parent home, no doubt), might reasonably be able to anticipate loneliness’s polar opposite, taking the form of continuous invasion, privacy violations, and intrusive familial probing. And all this comes courtesy of not one, but four nagging mothers; to say nothing of the scores of younger siblings constantly vying for a level of attention quite decidedly unattainable.

Here among the overwhelming fray, we find at the heart of this suburban polygamy operation the loneliest of them all, family head Golden Richards. A prominent and wealthy Utah businessman (well, one would expect him to be wealthy, given the three households the require expedient support), this Golden boy is a convert to the fundamentalist faith and, surface-wise, at least, a devote participant of its teachings and core principles. Surface-wise, I say, because although Richards makes it a regular habit of reading the Bible and Book of Mormon out-loud to his massive clan, and attends temple services with the unwavering mindset of the most pious of Latter Day Saints, he’s also engaged in something of an extramarital affair with his boss’s wife. Did I mention that he connected with her while helping to construct an auxiliary wing for a notorious Nevada brothel? And that he’s conveniently able to use these salacious distractions to further neglect the much-scorned members of his family?

Naturally, from what the average Joe or Jane can hope to gather about the practice of modern day polygamy, nothing about this chosen lifestyle is overt or simple, and indeed, popular works of fiction (like HBO’s hit drama Big Love) often portray polygamist families in an inoperable, sorely dysfunctional manner. Here in The Lonely Polygamist, Udall similarly gives an apt, if obvious, depiction of a life where fierce competition is societal mainstay, the ignorance of ingrained problems is routinely overlooked, and this way of life, so defiantly in contrast to the more workable way of doing things, inevitably leads to more than a little heartbreak and misery for all of the hapless individuals involved, willingly or otherwise.

In early review chatter, this book has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen’s popular masterwork (a novel notable also for having garnered the wrath of Oprah) The Corrections. Last summer, I eagerly fell into The Correction’s epically woven narrative, devouring each page with the zealousness of an aging FLDS community leader sizing up a new teenage bride. Stylistically, the similarities between that work and The Lonely Polygamist are not unfounded -- in both, family anxieties abound, and are explored with equal parts cynicism, affection, and disdain by the works’ respective authors. But unlike The Corrections, The Lonely Polygamist lacks a truly involving storytelling arch to compliment its strategically placed (and long-suffering) characters. Thankfully, Udall doesn’t waste inordinate amounts of time on the particulars of each member of the Richards family, but instead turns his authorial lens to just three in specific: head-honcho Golden, his youngest wife Trish, and pre-teen son Rusty, one of the barcoded and discarded children who never legitimately experiences the loss of parental involvement to the crunch and shuffle because, frankly, he was never afforded that luxury to begin with. As with Franzen’s tale of suburban torment, it’s not hard to predict the unhappy outcome that awaits the Richards clan at the end of this trying tunnel, but the journey getting there is nowhere near as enticing or mesmerizing as that which unfolds for The Corrections’ Lambert crew.

Also notably missing from a work about polygamy is any real religious dogma to speak of. Sure, the teachings and the subsequent practice is here to be had, but rarely does the reader catch any glimpse into Golden’s doctrine of faith, nor that of any of his wives or children. Sidestepping away from the more specific religiously ordained tenants of the FLDS lifestyle and its practitioners leaves the most alarming question for any reader unanswered: that is, why? Why contend with a thoroughly trying existence if not for a devoted commitment to the eternal salvation of the soul? We never really scrape past the mystery and discover the true meaning of why Mr. G and the women uphold their beliefs, but perhaps this is really besides the point. After all, why do any of us choose openly to contend with the dictations of suburban hell, if not for the unspoken acceptance that maybe, just maybe, this will all be worth it in the end?

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
Norton
ISBN: 9780393062625
602 Pages