Review: Brady Udall The Lonely Polygamist
One of the benefits of spending the summer doing research rather than working in Real Estate 70 hours a week is that I have a lot more spare time for reading. Having seen all of the hype about The Lonely Polygamist as a potential ‘Great Mormon Novel’ I felt that it would be a worthy start of summer read. I devoured the book reading voraciously and finished it after only two days of reading. I found it to be very good literature bordering on great. Udall masterfully weaves themes of isolation and failed expectations throughout the tale. Udall is great at understanding character motivation and WHY certain characters act in mysterious or disappointing ways. He touches at the fault line between outer appearance and inner pain in a profound fashion. He is able to channel humor in a way that also invokes thought and empathy.
I’ve heard comparisons for the novel between East of Eden and other classics, but in a way the novel most reminded me of Death of A Salesman in the way that it plays with an ideal and shows how the failure to live up to said ideal can be crippling.
Golden Richards is the husband of four fives and father of 28 children. He is constantly being pressured by Uncle Chick the prophet of his small Fundamentalist Latter Day Saint Congregation to take a fifth wife despite the chaos that goes on among him. Things are falling apart both emotionally and financially and yet Golden is merely urged to work harder and to try to to do more to live up to his patriarchal obligations. Yet, this decision is seemingly beyond his control as first wife Beverly suggests that they are not thrilling “Because we’re not living the principle as it should be lived. We’ve become selfish” (Kindle location 3,589-98). Golden was expected to be the One Mighty and Strong and yet has disappointed everyone. Golden is constantly falling short of his obligation as a father and patriarch and fails to provide physical or emotional satisfaction for his wives. Even though he has four wives and is urged to get another one, he can not provide for them emotionally and end up falling for a prostitute as an avenue for an external emotional connection. Golden has been unable to draw close to any of his children except for one daughter whom tragically dies under his watch.
Likewise, Fourth Wife Trish is expected to bring new life into the family in order to expand it. Yet, she miscarriages every time she becomes pregnant. Her one daughter is a bit of an odd ball and she is isolated from the rest of the family. She blames her lack of emotional connection with her husband and their lack of sexual intimacy on her failures to carry out her maternal duties.
Rusty the troublemaking son should be surrounded by love in his enormous family. Instead, he is exchanged by his mother and hardly sees her. His siblings do not like him and his outrageous attempts at getting attention only generate more scorn.
The ending of this book is powerful in that Rusty’s increasingly dangerous attempts for attention finally and tragically transform the family and bring them together. In a twisted way, he finally gets the attention he sought for so long. Likewise, Golden finally takes charge and ultimately begins to resemble the patriarch that he has long been expected to be. The book ends with a wedding, yet Udall resists the temptation to play to our sentiments and give us a sappy conclusion. Instead, the wedding leaves us wondering if the changes we notice are a true breaking of a cycle or merely temporary reflections of a more hopeful past.
For a book about Latter Day Saints (Of the fundamentalist strain), the book is at times oddly secular. Pages and pages go by without any mention of spirituality and religiosity. Yet, at the same time by the novel’s end you realize how religious motivation permeates throughout the novel. Most poignantly, Golden reflects on how his deceased daughter provided him motivation to resist temptation in one of the most poignant passages of the novel.
“It was Glory, and nothing else. Since the day of her death, he had wanted to give up or let loose, to get drunk or throw some kind of existential tantrum as a way of showing what he thought of a God who allowed innocent children to come into the world to suffer and then die early and horrible deaths, but the possibility that all things might be restored to him, that the tragedies of this existence might be made right somehow, that Glory might be waiting on the other side, had kept him, as they said so often in church, holding fast to the iron rod. His faith in God and heaven had always been weak, but he believed in them now, if for no other reason than belief in them offered the possibility to be with his daughter again; he believed because to do otherwise would be to consign her to oblivion.”
I could relate to this passage so deeply. When my mother died and I lost my faith in deity it seemed to make her vanish from realty. One of the chief reasons that I WANT to believe is that it brings her back to life in a real sense. The desire to reunite is a powerful motivation that shapes the course of lives.
Ultimately, the book is a powerful and challenging work. I can only begin to hint at some of its beautiful thematic expressions. Characters are rich and well realized and the book is much more humorous than my brief review suggests. Some scenes are a bit explicit and the book does contain some profane language so more sensitive readers may want to be careful. Still, I wholeheartedly recommend this book and it is one that I will linger on for quite a while.