THE LONELY POLYGAMIST, by Brady Udall. W.W. Norton & Co., 599 pp., $26.95.
Golden Richards, middle-aged 6-foot-6 polygamist with an overbite, is one of the most appealing, original and brilliantly tragicomic protagonists to appear in American fiction in some time. We meet the guy mid-disaster - his four wives and 28 children are in chaos and turning against him, his construction company has been reduced to building a brothel in the desert (though Golden tells the family he's working on a senior center) and, his own neglected spouses notwithstanding, he has fallen in love with his boss' Guatemalan wife.
So hamstrung by these complications is he that, after a 200-mile drive from work, only "a need to pee that bordered on spiritual torment" can pry him from the cab of his truck. But inside his home things go poorly, and the one bathroom on the first floor is drastically overbooked. He ends up urinating in a mop bucket in the utility closet, joined by his dog Cooter ("a weasel-like creature with bulging Marty Feldman eyes and a hairless butt who had no idea how hideous he was") and Son #6, a 10-year-old named Clifton who has been bent over in urinary agony in front of the occupied lavatory down the hall. After being beckoned to the closet, he surveys his father and dog and asks, "Did Aunt Beverly lock you in here, too?"
Beverly is Wife #1, the mother of 10 of the kids, and queen of the family. Wives #2 and #3 are sisters, Nola and Rose-of-Sharon. Standing slightly apart from their tight little clique is latecomer Wife #4, Trish, only 27 - the other wives are in their 40s - and the most attractive. But Trish has given Golden only a stillborn child and is mother only to a creepy 10-year-old daughter she brought with her from her abusive first marriage. Aching for Golden's attention, Trish is driven to research seduction techniques in Cosmopolitan magazine. It is here that she is advised that she give her husband added pleasure by chewing a piece of minty-fresh gum before climbing into bed. This gambit goes terribly awry, creating a subplot that carries through the whole 602-page novel, as Golden can't understand how a wad of gum got stuck in his hair or how to get it out.
The narration of "The Lonely Polygamist" moves among three different vantage points: Golden's, Trish's and that of another attention-deprived family member, 11-year-old Son #5, Rusty. Outcast not only by his relations but by the world at large, Rusty provides a lucid perspective on what it means to be the child of a "plyg" family. (Udall's own great-great grandfather was a polygamist; he was raised in a large but monogamist Mormon family.) A vividly written young anti-hero, Rusty seems as close to the author's heart as his father, Golden.
"Up in the Tower by himself he tried to count his blessings," Udall writes, "which was the easiest math problem ever, because the answer was a BIG FAT ZERO. And nobody cared, nobody would help him. He'd started to think he should just kill himself, stick a sharp pencil through his ear-hole or walk all the way to Iceland and float away on an iceberg. But last night, because his plans were ruined and he didn't know what to do, he decided to pray."
The tragedies of this novel range from the human-size (Golden's miserable childhood, the death of his beloved daughter, Glory, and Rusty's fate) to the epic (the testing of massive atomic bombs in Nevada in the 1950s and '60s). In fact, a mushroom cloud filled the sky and rained radioactive ash on the newlyweds the day of Golden and Beverly's marriage. Yet, as these disasters deliver their endless fallout, Udall manages to keep the reader thoroughly entertained, often in stitches. The ambition of the plot, the originality of the characters and the sheer fun of the book on the scene and sentence level qualify "The Lonely Polygamist" as one of the best novels I've read in a while.
As Golden's empire of misery and lies crumbles around him, it turns out that the solution to his problems is not less polygamy, but more. This underlines the completely nonjudgmental nature of the book with regard to the lifestyle it depicts. Full of loss and deceit, commitment and hope, the world of the Richards family seems no better or worse than any other of our bizarre American ways of life.