In 1998, Brady Udall wrote a nonfiction piece for Esquire titled “The Lonely Polygamist” that reported on the life of a man in the Salt Lake City suburbs who was trying to balance four wives and 31 children with his career. If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because the article was originally titled “Big Love.”
The point was that while polygamy might initially sound appealing to men because it means you get to have sex with four different women without anybody complaining, it also means you have four women saying you watch too much football, four “honey-do” lists, four times as many youth soccer games to attend—and God help you when the women start forming alliances against you. Instead of nonstop sex, it’s nonstop responsibility.
Udall has taken the point of that article and spun it into a masterful 600-page work of fiction set in Southern Utah in the 1970s. Golden Richards owns a construction business that has a contract to build a brothel in Las Vegas—something he’s ashamed of but has to do to keep feeding his four wives and 28 children. Although the comparisons to Big Love’s Bill Henrickson are obvious, perhaps the better HBO character to compare Golden to is Tony Soprano. He’s a middle-age guy in charge of a large family organization involved in illegal activities. Taking care of that family is forcing him to do business with underworld types. He has a long drive from work to his large home. He should be happy because he’s reached the pinnacle of his community, but he instead feels lost and wants to talk about it with somebody.
Even the name of the main character, Golden Richards, hints at the trajectory of his life. The original, nonfiction Golden Richards was a Salt Lake City native with flowing blond hair to fit his name. He dated Olivia Newton-John and caught a touchdown pass for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII in 1978 before hitting the skids due to a variety of addictions. (I’m still trying to figure out how the name of the brothel owner, Ted Leo, ties in to the band Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.)
Udall’s polygamists do not fit the stereotype often seen in the news due to underage marriages, Lost Boys, pioneer garb or welfare fraud. They’re just regular folks who happen to have a different family arrangement. However, as the story unfolds, Udall expertly weaves in an underlying theme involving the nuclear testing conducted in Nevada. Things in the Richards family might seem calm on the surface, but a huge explosion is brewing underneath—and when it happens, there’s no telling where the fallout may land.
Udall tells the story through not only Golden, but also Trish, the much younger fourth wife, and Rusty, an 11-year-old boy competing with dozens of siblings for his father’s attention. Udall switches back and forth between the three characters with ease, making each a full and convincing individual. Combining all of that with Udall’s sense of pace, plotting and descriptive abilities makes for a balance that moves the story forward in a compelling manner, while also finding time to address a number of thought-provoking issues.
Through it all, Udall manages to make Golden—supposedly the powerful family patriarch with four women at his beck and call—a sympathetic figure. We can only feel sorry for the weary and beaten Golden when Udall writes, “He’d had about all he could stand of important things. He was tired of the big decisions required of him every day, the momentous life-altering occasions that happened, in this family, at least once a week. ... He didn’t want to see another overdue utility bill or tax notice, didn’t want to take any more phone calls regarding feuding wives.”
After all, even polygamist daddies get lonely, sometimes.
THE LONELY POLYGAMIST
By Brady Udall W.W. Norton & Company
2010 602 pages
$26.95 hardback Brady Udall
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