Not-so-big love

Brady Udall fails to bring his tale of Mormon polygamist to life

Brady Udall’s novel emerges amid a thriving media fascination with polygamy, reflected by the HBO hit “Big Love.’’ Brady Udall’s novel emerges amid a thriving media fascination with polygamy, reflected by the HBO hit “Big Love.’’ (Lacey Terrell/Hbo)
By Jay Atkinson
May 9, 2010

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Somehow, against reasonable expectations given the plot outline, Brady Udall has produced a novel about a giant of a man with four wives and 28 children that’s devoid of passion, rudderless, and utterly lacking in surprise. The big revelation in “The Lonely Polygamist’’ is that a man with four wives has four times the amount of headaches, household drudgery, unpaid bills, and after-school scheduling difficulties. Thanks, but I didn’t really need 599 pages to figure that out.

The central character in Udall’s dreary tale is 45-year-old Golden Richards, a strapping, 6-foot-6, blue-eyed building contractor and Mormon fundamentalist/separatist who lives with his gamboling brood in Utah’s Virgin River Valley, circa the late 1970s. Beyond the obvious complications associated with his wives and more than two dozen “plyg kids,’’ who have, in his frequent absences, divided into warring factions, Richards is beset by several other demons. Still grieving over the loss of his beloved (and disabled) “daughter #9,’’ Glory, who died in a tragic accident, the harried dad is also leveled by the arrival of a stillborn son, named Jack by his latest wife, Trish, who’s nearly 20 years younger than he, new to the family, and chafing under the strict family regimen enforced by “mother #1,’’ the no-nonsense Beverly.

If these domestic tribulations aren’t enough to keep Richards down, he’s further troubled by a housing bust so profound that he’s been forced to take a construction job 200 miles away in Nye County, Nev. Unbeknownst to his family and neighbors, Richards is engaged by an unsavory dude named Ted Leo to build a whorehouse. Participating in the erection of PussyCat Manor II does not jibe with “The Principle,’’ the notion that binds these Mormon outliers to what they consider founder Joseph Smith’s original vision for the faith. Richards then compounds his sin by telling church elders and his wives that he’s building an old folks home. In his younger days, there was some talk that Richards might just be “the One Mighty and Strong,’’ the redeemer, chosen and delivered from on high, who would unite the various splinter groups of the faith and prepare the way for Christ’s return to earth. But separated from his hyperextended family for days at a time, Udall’s protagonist finds himself entranced by Leo’s enigmatic young wife, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty named Huila. Perhaps she is the antidote for his middle-aged ennui, his inertia, and his consistent, maddening indecisiveness.

So far, so good. Just tell me an interesting story. But Richards is an annoying, lackluster creation, a total dud as both hero and antihero. It’s possible that Richards doesn’t immediately elicit our sympathy because his aberrant social behavior falls outside what readers are willing to accept. Of course, the gold standard in realistic fiction for the unlikable protagonist is Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, the charmingly amoral pederast who stalks the pages of his classic novel, “Lolita.’’ But Nabokov eases the reader’s burden in turning the pages with his incandescent prose style and lurking wit. Richards, though sharing the name of a graceful wide receiver who once played for the Dallas Cowboys, is a shambling doofus whose persistent weakness fails to stir the reader one way or another.

Though much of Udall’s prose is unadorned and workmanlike, his narrative strikes a few sparks, like this passage describing a bomb test that Golden and Beverly inadvertently witnessed during a picnic right after they were married in the 1950s. “Inside that silence grew a strobing fluorescence that infused the broken landscape with a soft lavender glow, and then came the great shearing flash, a light so wildly bright and alien it seemed not like light at all but something from deepest space: a cold, brute element, the birth-matter of stars, the silvery essence of every created thing.’’

Atomic bombs explode intermittently across the canvas of Udall’s ill-fated epic, though he’s not sure what to do with them. In fact, the problem with this story is that the author gives equal narrative weight to well-crafted, portentous scenes like this and a ridiculous passage where Richards finally snips away the chewing gum that’s been caught in his pubic hair for several chapters. With a grand total of 33 “main’’ characters, Udall is forced to turn the overwhelming majority of them into nameless and faceless ciphers who never take hold of the reader’s imagination. These errors, simply put, come down to judgment, and it appears that neither Udall nor his editor were consistent in exercising it.

Polygamy as a lifestyle or social occurrence is best known to most Americans via the HBO series “Big Love’’ or the disturbing case of Warren Jeffs, a 54-year-old leader of an offshoot of the Mormon church currently serving a lengthy Utah prison sentence for coercing underage girls into sex and sham marriages with him and his hoary cronies. Laboring under these preconceived notions, Udall faced a tall order by attempting to create a sympathetic polygamist, as well as a story worth reading. In this book, he doesn’t deliver.

Jay Atkinson’s new book is “Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America.’’ Contact him at


Norton, 599 pp., $26.95