The Lonely Polygamist is one of the most unusual, even bizarre, novels I have read recently, a lengthy tome that follows the life and loves of Golden Richards through an emotional crisis that ends with the addition of a new wife and a recommitment to the polygamist lifestyle he has recently considered rejecting for a more conventional existence.
With four wives and twenty-eight children, two large homes and the duplex inhabited by his fourth wife, Trish, Golden’s affections have been stretched thin of late, barely satisfying any of the sister-wives or children demanding his attention - “the three stooges,” the eleven-year-old “family terrorist” or any of the hopeful faces that wait for their turn with Daddy. Meanwhile, Golden’s construction business takes him away from Virgin Valley for weeks at a time, disrupting the careful schedule for conjugal visits and offering a unique temptation on a job in Nevada building an addition to a brothel.
While far from an American “everyman,” Udall’s protagonist is a man caught in the vise of his best intentions, his shortcomings as husband and father painfully obvious as he sneaks visits with a new romantic interest from the brothel and vacillates between guilt and self-indulgence. This is a man in a moral crisis, whose life choices and personal history have left him in a mid-life state of panic, alcohol no longer the forbidden enemy but a source of release.
While the story is told from Golden’s perspective, as well as those of fourth wife Trish and Rusty (the family terrorist), a picture emerges of a family at the precipice of chaos, unsatisfied sister-wives with their own secrets and fears and an assembly line of children whose social context is confined to other family members and polygamist families. It is difficult for me to entertain sympathy for this blundering, clumsy man with few social skills and a family in distress. Ultimately, the story ends with tragedy and a grim reminder that adults are sometimes careless with the well-being of the innocents entrusted to our care.
Golden’s tale is fraught with dark humor and the absurdity of his situation but burdensome after 600 pages. What is meant to be funny and heartbreaking may work for many readers, and certainly there is fine irony in the many chapters. But I could not help but think of the effects of such a lifestyle on children who have many mothers and one father, their needs never adequately met (think “the lost boys”) - although Golden seems to have no trouble resolving his problems. While the HBO series Big Love presents some of the modern-day pitfalls of polygamy, Udall’s novel doesn’t evoke the same sympathies. In The Lonely Polygamist, it’s a man’s world, one that women will recognize as just another form of slavery, the humor a product of your perspective.