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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist: Can Anybody Hear Me?

Golden Richards has chewing gum stuck in his pubic hair, and he has no earthly idea how it got there. It's just one more calamity in the life of this lonely polygamist, who, with four wives and 28 children, has all but lost control. As Udall tells us about halfway through the novel, "(Golden's) very life, including his marriages to his wives, his children, his church position, was none of his own doing." Indeed, his life is a combination of a careful orchestration by his wives of where to be and when, and putting out fires caused by misbehaving kids and a failing construction business. Dude just can't get a moment to himself to relax!

Brady Udall's irony rich (starting with the title!), tragi-comedy novel is a fantastic (if a bit lengthy) read. Believe it or not, Golden is one of the more sympathetically pathetic characters I've read in a while. Will he ever be able to take control of his life? Here's a great detail to illustrate just how much he's been emasculated: His first wife Beverly, who rules the brood, has placed instructional signs everywhere in Old House (where she lives with her litter of 10), most notably above the toilet: "Golden, Please Take A Seat." Poor guy can't even pee like a man.

Really, the gum-in-the-pubic-hair (the reader does know how it got there, and it's hilarious) is a rather inventive metaphor for Golden's life — it's tangled beyond relief. And, other than making a clean break/cut, he has no idea how to extract himself. Despite being surrounded with his family, he's lost the emotional attachment to them, and starts looking elsewhere to relieve his loneliness. 

Compounding the loneliness theme of the novel is the interspersed narratives of two other characters. One is Golden's 12-year-old son Rusty, who is a misunderstood miscreant who tries on his sisters' underwear, steals things from his siblings and generally misbehaves as a sincere cry out for attention. Golden's young and beautiful fourth wife, Trish, also is just beginning to realize the true degree of her own loneliness. She grew up in a polygamist sect and vowed never to live that life herself, but after an abusive first marriage, her mother has convinced her to join Golden's family for security and emotional support. She's getting neither, and she may soon look elsewhere, too?

But this is really Golden's story, and again, it's equal parts funny and sad. This novel had gotten great reviews when it came out last year, but I put it off because I was worried that it might be a "look how bizarre polygamy is" story in which I'd have to keep track of a War-and-Peace-like number of characters. Not the case. Udall doesn't totally ignore the "abnormality" of the Richards clan, mentioning awkward moments for Golden here and there in the community at large, and that Rusty gets teased at school for being a "plyg kid." But it's really a story of how Golden, Trish and Rusty combat their loneliness. And it's really good. Highly recommended!

18 comments:

  1. Of course a polygamist is going to be lonely.

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  2. I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I liked it at the beginning, but then as I read I didn't feel sympathy for Golden and I felt like the book was asking me to. However, I did love the Rusty chapters. I thought the voice was lively and authentic and I wanted the Golden chapters to have the same kind of life.

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  3. Sounds like a great book. I live with two ladies, my beloved wife and my six year old daughter.

    I can't even imagine having another female in the house, luckily my four year old son keeps me sane.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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  4. I loved this book. I thought what kept it from being a "weird Mormon family" book was that it speaks to universal family problems, thus making Golden (and his wives, and poor dear Rusty) that much more familiar.

    I think it polarizes people, though. At a recent Books and Bars event, it seemed like many really liked it, but a small but vocal minority really, really didn't.

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  5. I haven't really jumped on the polygamy book bandwagon so it's nice to hear that this book stands as a good one outside of "hey look at me, I'm polygamy!"

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  6. I really enjoyed this novel. I recommended it to a friend and she could barely get through half... not sure if I like her anymore. Anyways, great review, great book.

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  7. This one is on my shelf. Based on your review I think I will enjoy it.

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  8. Sounds perfect for me to read soon. I read another great review of it quite awhile ago on another blog and purchased it on their recommendation. It has sat on my shlef ever since. I did just recently read the 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, which is a more serious look at polygamy on the Church of LDS both now and in the past. I think that this might be a good one to follow up with - another more comic perspective on polygamy.

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  9. Woo hoo! I'm glad you liked this book as much as I did. The part with Rusty and Trish at the end was kind of disturbing though ... you know what part I'm talking about ...

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  10. Also, a suggestion for anyone who wants to read a great memoir about polygamy: Daughter of the Saints by Dorothy Allred Solomon. Review on my blog somewhere. :)

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  11. @Shelley - Interesting theory. How ya figure? I assume the opposite.

    @LBC - I can certainly understand how some readers would lose sympathy for Golden (or not have it in the first place). He is kind of a dolt. But I just couldn't help feeling bad for him. I also loved the Rusty chapters - very authentic voice. He certainly was able to make you believe that all his mischief was for no other reason than that he wanted to be noticed.

    @Man - You get a definite sense of the chaos that is this guy's life. You're right - I can't imagine it either.

    @Amy - Good point about the universal family problems - simply paying the bills, straying from you vows, balancing free time and family time. And I think you're right about either loving or hating it - I feel like some people who hate it haven't gone in with as open a mind as maybe they could have regarding polygamy. Sure, it's a silly practice, but it's not like the novel's advocating that way of life!

    @Pam - This is the only polygamy book I've ever read, and it was definitely refreshing that it wasn't so much a book about polygamy as it was about three characters whose situation happens to involve polygamy.

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  12. @Christine - Ha - funny how that works with friends and them not liking books we enjoyed and feeling animosity, huh? Yeah, it seems like it's an either-loved-it-or-hated-it book. I loved it!

    @Amy - I hope you do - I'll be interested to hear what you think.

    @Becky - Yeah, though the most pervasive theme in this novel is loneliness (the title...duh), it definitely has some laugh-out-loud funny parts. Udall's really good a toeing the line. I think you'll like it.

    @Ingrid - Yeah, what you're talking about, and yeah - made me feel icky. Overall, very good though - and thanks for the recommendation.

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  13. I thought this was a great book, and I was totally sympathetic to Golden. Yes, he chose his circumstances but he was also a victim to his circumstances. And Rusty . . . he broke my heart.

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  14. I really loved this book and was surprised by how much I sympathized with poor Golden. I listened to the audio, which is terrific.

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  15. Great review! I`m reading this for sure!

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  16. I read this book about a month ago and it took me forever to finish. I actually did my first well written goodreads review about it. I loved Rusty, but the rest of the book not so much. I really wanted to love The Lonely Polygamist, but it just didn't happen for me.

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  17. This story is a far cry from the charm of Big Love, albeit probably more accurate, a random gathering of sister wives and their offspring, including a child who has an affinity for removing his drawers, a father who resorts to a closet and bucket due to a chronic shortage of bathrooms, "the Three Stooges", and an assortment of clamoring girls. While Golden avoids the troubling reality of his increasingly suspect activities, life moves along, an unavoidable reckoning on the horizon. In a mixture of failed dreams, meager expectations and personal tragedies, Golden's reality takes on a life of its own, a shape-shifter where good and bad depend on your point of view. At times entertaining, outrageous and sad, the novel is long and sometimes tedious.

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  18. A gum stuck on the pubic hair? Lol, even the first sentence was already fun to read. Lesson learned, 1st sentence/paragraph should be interesting or will already capture the readers so that readers will continue on with the rest of the story....

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