To his fellow church members, the overwhelmed patriarch of The Lonely Polygamist is best known as a man who once established his claim toward becoming the group’s redeemer by chasing away a rival prophet with an ax handle. His fellow fundamentalist Mormons can’t see how he gropes toward salvation on a more earthly plain, a struggle writ large with laughs over Brady Udall’s raucous second novel.
Golden Richards has four wives and 28 children, three houses he can ill afford, and a construction business buckling under the strain of supporting them all. Spending weeks off in Nevada building a brothel—which he’s told everyone back home is a senior center—he’s under fire for missing elder meetings at church and his wives’ meticulously assigned “date nights,” but he can’t relate his job woes to anyone under any of his roofs. Living out of a trailer behind another brothel, with his eye wandering to his employer’s shy wife, Golden contemplates his unhappy childhood and the legacy of his oil-chasing father while puzzling over what will bring his fractious family back together. Meanwhile, his fourth wife, Trish, trying to get pregnant after losing her first child with Golden at birth, grows bored with the life she once rejected only to return. And 11-year-old Rusty, sent away from his emotionally fragile mother in an abortive attempt at family exchange, befriends a fireworks expert and plots a display that will finally get his dad’s attention.
Polygamist-family heads like Golden are so often seen as the perpetrators of a repressive lifestyle that it’s startling to want to sympathize with him. By tracking backward through Golden’s life, Udall builds his presumptive hero into such a noodle of a man that it becomes plausible that he was nudged into “plyg” life. (Then nudged further in: His first wife, Beverly, bullies him toward a fifth marriage, even though she doesn’t like the woman in question.)
Udall avoids the deep dive into theology by setting the bulk of his book outside of Richards’ sect; aside from a flashback to a sermon by the prophet’s right-hand man, Uncle Chick, the Richards clan isn’t particularly religious in practice. Buffeted by the personalities around him, Golden doesn’t consider the family he’s been instrumental in building until he’s forced to seek refuge from them in a closet in The Lonely Polygamist’s disorderly opening, but there’s an element of grace in his gradual awakening to responsibility. Some of the Richards family’s adventures tend toward slapstick, but their bonds, however capriciously formed, prove stronger than their factions.