Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (Amazon) is in stores this week and early buzz is good. Will it claim title as the Great American Novel? Will it be this year’s big bestseller? Will it successfully lower our cholesterol? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I will say it’s a book that could keep an academic busy for a long long time. Were I employed by a university (which, as my administration constantly reminds me, I am not), then this book, even on one read, would give me enough juice for a dozen papers. I have one in my head about minor characters Nelson and Nestor, for instance, that I am not planning on sharing with you or, indeed, ever writing ever.
This is a good place to point out that what I am writing today is not really a “review” so much as analysis of one core aspect of The Lonely Polygamist. If you must have a review, roll over here, but I want to be the first to publicly taste the meat. That said, be aware that this post will include some minor spoilers—though not many when you consider the opening line of the book is “To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair” which affair does not show up for a long long time.
Disclaimer: I am reviewing an ARC sent me by the publisher, W W Norton. This copy was free and, being early, had some obvious copyediting errors still in its pages. It is thus possible that I am perpetuating errors in the quotations below and that what I’ve typed will not match your own copy. Just so you know.
It’s the Carter presidency (although Udall could have mentioned that earlier—I went 215 pages thinking we were in the modern day; one favorable reference to the Bee-Gees does not an era set) and Golden Richards is drowning in four wives and twenty-seven (living) children. He is a man who, upon arriving at one of his homes, is attacked by children who all want a piece of Dad. And the pressure is getting to him. And that’s just family life. Let’s not mention his ecclesiastical responsibilities or that his current construction project is for a cathouse (which obviously must be kept secret from both wives and brethren). Golden is a man being pulled too many direction. And he can’t even talk to his wives about his problems because if he doesn’t tell them all the Exact Same Thing, he’ll be in trouble when they compare notes. For all the people surrounding him, Golden is a man utterly alone.
(Aside on fundementalists’ pending opinion of this book: Udall spent a decade researching this book [which included time with them] and, to me, it feels very honest. This does not mean they will necessarily be happy about it of course—not many mainstream Mormons would be happy with a Big National Novel that had, say, a bishop mid-affair, no matter how “honest” the nambypambys thought it might be or how us-humanizing an effect it has upon readers. So I doubt they will be calling it The Great Fundamentalist Novel, even if it is a great novel generically. But who knows. Maybe they are less prone to feeling picked-upon than us mainstream Mormons. Maybe.)
The novel’s set in southern Utah, Virgin County. Our protagonist, Golden Richards, polygamist, is a member of his sect’s Twelve Apostles (though they’ve never had enough men to fill the quorum) and they are a little more “normal” than some of the other polygamists in the neighborhood who can be far more austere or who, sometimes, make a living by sending their kids into the dump. Golden is neither austere nor Ewellian. Although on paper some of Udall’s descriptions might seem overtypical (loner childhood, daddy issues, wacko mother), the specifics are remarkable and Golden is one of the richest characters I’ve read in a while. And not just Golden—the other two p-o-v characters (wife #4 and son #5) are also excellent examples of character drawing (though it should be mentioned that not every character is brilliant; it would be exhausting to have every family member taking up permanent residence in my head; I do not wish to be come Golden, merely read about him).
I’m now going to begin sketching out a metaphor Udall himself never clearly draws even though the book entire never lets you ignore it. Because the metaphor is not made explicit in the book, I, this reader, am, best I know, the first to make it explicit. And so if I mix this metaphor slightly, redefining its rules as I go, don’t blame Brady.
I begin by calling Golden an atomic nucleus and his children the orbiting electrons. Consider this early description:
The racetrack was a mistake in planning, pure and simple. The house had been built according to a standard floor plan: kitchen at the center, surrounded by the living room, family room, dining room and rec room, each of which opened into the room next to it. How could he have foreseen that such a configuration would create a kind of European-style roundabout, a perfect racetrack oval that would allow the kids to tear through the house in endless, uninterrupted procession? Big House became the scene of an ongoing stampede: kids sprinting through the rooms after each other, banking around corners and accelerating on the straightaways, careening and skidding and bouncing off walls, always, for some reason, in a counterclockwise flow. (19)
The running around the racetrack—as you know if you’ve ever been in a house laid out like this—will never stop. They’ll run and run and run and run even if you tell them not to even if you put furniture in their way even if you lose your temper. They are children. And they circle the nucleus.
But it’s the nucleus who defines the family. P-o-v son #5 mentioned above, Rusty, realizes this: “It was his father who had the power, who connected them all. You take his father out of the picture . . . . No more family. It was simple.” (470)
The reason this extended (if subterranean) atomic metaphor sinks so deeply into the reader is because simultaneous with this family’s genesis is a bunch of nuclear testing just over the border in Nevada. And one bomb in particular: Roy.
Roy does not appear to be a real bomb (find the names of real bombs here) as emphasized by “Nearly two days after his detonation, Roy would leave the continent with one last gift; in an irony that would be lost on history, he would unload three minutes’ worth of radioactive hail on Washington, D.C.” (288) But while we may not know if a real bomb ever dropped ironic radioactive hail on DC, we do know what real bombs did to people in, say, Virgin County. And this Roy is a killer.
In the tradition of Victor Hugo’s sewers, Udall breaks away from our regularly scheduled p-o-vs when Roy goes off, to show us other people caught in the bomb’s wrath. And meeting a soldier with irradiated testicles and girl who will lose her hair,
Roy continued on, stalking the countryside, sowing his swarms of radioisotopes like seeds, cesium 137, which infiltrates the fleshy tissues; strontium 90, which masquerades as calcium and goes directly to the bones; iodine 131, which has a particular fondness for the thyroid glands of children. Born of raw cataclysm, the ruin he would deliver now was of a variety more delicate, sophisticated: he would coat the roads and pastures and reservoirs with his radioactive powder, cling to homemade undergarments drying on clotheslines, drift like dream-dust through open windows to settle in bassinets and couch cushions and cracks in the floorboards. He would inhabit this place and its people like a ghost. He would insinuate himself into the food chain and into the bodies of the hapless tenants of this land, and he would hide there, in their muscles and brains, breaking them down with exquisitely measured patience, day by day sipping a their bones’ marrow, setting their nerves to smoldering and fouling their blood, allowing them all the while the privilege of watching their poisoned children wither to nothing, and only when he had his fill of their suffering would he usher them quietly, mercifully, from the precincts of the living. (287-288)
This is no benign bomb no matter how excited the scientists get by the raises they anticipate. Even Roy, the name, is significant. Roy, king, father of the nation. Much as Golden is or should be. He is the family. Without the Father, there is no family—no binding—just people without a home, wandering.
Radioactivity is a result of nuclei breaking apart of course. And Golden’s own father was a nucleus with a crummy half-life. First he abandoned Golden and his mother. And then, years later, after striking it rich on uranium and hooking up with the polygamists, he does breaks down more literally (language warning):
He wore his gray Stetson–the one with a medallion of uranium-rich pitchblende affixed to the headband–when the nurses weren’t around, and sported his aviator shades because he couldn’t take the light. When the young, ruddy-cheeked doctor–who Royal referred to as Little Doc Fauntleroy–suggested with some querulousness that wearing a lump of radioactive mineral on one’s head might not be safe, and that long-term radiation exposure might have been a contributing cause of Royal’s cancer, Royal made a show of removing the hat and licking the hunk of pitchblende all over as if it were a piece of hard candy. . . . This was how Royal demonstrated the wonder and harmlessness of radioation, which, he claimed, had never been proven to hurt a soul–except, of course, for a few hundred thousand Japs–bada-bing!–and was the only reliable means of keeping our great nation safe from the Reds and all the combines forces of Satan.
From the soapbox of his hospital bed he told anyone who would listen he had spent years breathing uranium dust in his own goddamn mine, had overseen the processing of yellowcake in the mills, had witnesses [sic] some of the biggest tests firsthand, and had breathed in the bouquet of radioactive fallout, which didn’t smell much different, he claimed, than a rich woman’s farts. And you didn’t see anything wrong with him, did you? Shit, no! Look at him! Strong as a fucking ox! And then a childlike bewilderment would smooth out the sun-gouged lines of his face, a touch of doubt would dim those luminous eyes, and he would glance around, confused as to where he was, exactly, and where it was he was headed. (461)
Yes. His father’s name is Royal.
And this is the potential father’s have. Even after they’ve destroyed their family, they still have the potential to destroy themselves.
Nuclear force is called strong force (it is). The center should hold. That is Golden’s job. He is the Father.
Consider these (italics in original):
The kind of chaos that begets itself, over and over again, until it becomes a kind of order, a way of life. (293)
By increments they are approaching an agreement: to abandon they mass illusion of themselves as a happy, God-fearing family, bound together for all eternity by obligation and love. (294)
And here, at the head of the table, impossible to miss, is the Father, catalyst to an explosion he can’t control. (295)
“Can’t”? Or won’t?
Golden spends much of the book as a sort of anti-Jens, failing to assert his masculine authority, just doing what the women want. They tell him what to do and he does it. And when he does get into his storied affair? What will he do then? Will he break it off? Will he run away with her? Well,
He planned to talk to her, really talk, to finally get down to business. They could not go on like this, he would tell her, trying hard to keep the whine out of his voice, he couldn’t take it anymore, it was that simple, something bad was going to happen, it was only a matter of time. Either they were going to go through with it, they were going to run away together, or they would have to face up to everything they had done, stop sneaking round and accept the consequences. So this was his plan: they would talk, in a very serious and adult way, and once and for all she would tell him what to do. (473)
Perhaps Golden was fated to be a decomposing nucleus. The afternoon of his first wedding, Roy was detonated and as the newlyweds shared a picnic and moved closer and closer to their first bit of sex, they are overtaken by a “cloud . . . purplish black at the center bleeding to red and brown and then dull ocher around the edges” (289). Before they can run to the truck they are coated in burning ash, breathing it and tasting it, and when they do consummate their marriage in the truck, they are still half-covered in deadly isotopes. But the “damage [their own bodies suffer] wouldn’t end there, of course; when it comes to humans, pain and suffering are passed through the generations . . . .” (291), in the form of disease and more than the average number of miscarriages and stillbirths. The corruption at the center moves outward, effects all.
(Warning: I am not providing you with great science.)
Since even before their marriage, this first wife, Beverly, has been in charge. But now, as things begin to truly disintegrate, Beverly is ill—the dust in her lungs has begun to bloom and old secrets have been made public.
Even in the midst of everything, he [Golden]’d been operating, as he had for years, under the single, standing assumption: that if all else failed–and it probably would–Beverly would be there to save him. . . . she would swallow her anger and deep disappointment in him long enough to take care of everything. . . .
He stood and offered her his hand and then she did an amazing thing: she accepted it. She grasped his wrist and leaned in to him, letting her weight rest against his, and for just a moment, before she pushed away, it felt very much as though he were holding her up. (467)
Corruption and disintegration also offer Golden the chance to regain his role as Father. It is an opening for him to accept his royal calling. Though, if you notice, this opening comes seven pages before he hopes his illicit lover will “once and for all . . . tell him what to do.”
Now. If The Lonely Polygamist is indeed a new candidate for the Great American Novel, then its hero must show a bit of that American, HoratioAlgeresque gumption. But what could make Golden finally get it together and take charge?
Consider a moment in which he thinks he will die as he stands above a hole in the ground:
. . . he stared into the perfect black hole in the ground that represented his oblivion, mesmerized by the notion that maybe he hadn’t, after all, come out here for justice or vengeance or plain, pleasurable spite, but to realize, finally and in the most complete way possible, his desire for release, his dream of escape. (490, emphasis added)
Oblivion is the temptation then, but what will save him?
His children. What is an proton with out its countercharge? What is a father without his children?
In moments of stress, Golden has a mantra that helps him find calm. And that mantra is EmmaNephiHelamanNaolmiJosephineNovellaParleySybilDeeanneGaleAlvinRustyCliftonHerschelGloryBoo— All the way down to Pet.
Ultimately, the Father requires his family. The Father defines his family. In essence, the Father decides whether his family is contained and maintained, or if it goes up in a giant mushroom cloud.
But this father requires a crisis before he can rise to action, and it is Rusty, to remake our radioallegory, who is the nutty neutron, like the thrown ping-pong ball (even if it ends up that’s bad science), who will start the reaction that either saves or destroys the family.
After an accident, Golden carries Rusty away from the scene,
. . . searching . . . for some other, more acceptable outcome: that he was mistaken, that this was not his child at all but belonged to someone else entirely, someone stouthearted enough to withstand a blow such as this, someone wise and resolute and strong, a man of faith, a good father, someone not at all like him. (475)
But it is him. It is his family. It is Rusty. And now Golden must decide. Is he Roy(al)? Or is he a stable element like, say, gold.
Back to the moment he thinks he might die, after viewing the temptation of the black hole and as he repeats his mantra, his kids are no longer
. . . a hopelessly long and tangled strand of DNA nonsense-letters, or . . . a single, pulsing organism (as he had some to think of them lately), ever-growing and demanding to be fed, but . . . individual bodies and faces appearing behind the glass of windows and the screens of front doors, waiting, eyes bright, wondering where he was, what was taking him so long to come home. (491)
The promotional material for The Lonely Polygamist calls it a “HIGHLY ANTICIPATED NEW NOVEL ABOUT THE AMERICAN FAMILY WRIT LARGE” (overly excited allcaps in the original) and that’s a good place to start in understanding this story. It’s large and complex, and Golden (as well as the other p-o-vs) has trouble finding his place in it. But ultimately, it is simply a story about a family. And what they do when crisis strikes. Do they, collectively, meet the challenge? Do they as individuals? Are those two manners of meeting reconcilable? Is it a “mass illusion” that they are one big happy family? Or is perception, self-definition, the only means of recognizing a happy family that matters?
Udall has proved Tolstoy right and wrong. When unhappy, the Richards family is unhappy in its own way. But when happy—they do that in their own way as well.
And as long as the nucleus holds, as long as no one presses the red button, as long as we don’t open the box and look at the cat inside, then yes. We are one big happy family.
Just smile for the camera and leave your Geiger counter in its drawer.