Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Polygamy Novel for People Who Hate Polygamy Novels: A Review of Brady Udall's "The Lonely Polygamist"

I hate novels about polygamy.

If you've read one, you've read them all. Perverted old men. Teenage brides. Bitter old women. Compounds. Prairie dresses. Incest. Rape. Fear. Oppression.

I don't know what it's like living in a polygamous society, so I can't judge the accuracy of the typical polygamy novel. I've also never had much interaction with polygamists, although I once worked with a guy who had grown up in a polygamist group. He was pretty forthcoming with the details, and none of them was flattering.

That said, I've also heard that polygamist groups vary, that not all of them are like, say, the notorious group in Short Creek/Colorado City. Again, I can't say. I don't really know.

Which is funny, I guess, because I am a Mormon and I share spiritual roots with these groups, even though my ancestors haven't lived "the Principle" since the turn of the last century.

Funny, but not surprising. We mainstream Mormons don't really like to be associated with our polygamous cousins, and we exert every effort to prove to the world (particularly that part of it that works with us or lives next door) how different we are from them. Recently, Mormons have even become one of the staunchest defenders of traditional marriage, which would have mystified our monogamy-mocking forebears one hundred and fifty years ago.

Of course, as we distance ourselves from polygamists, we reduce them to stereotypes, to the villainous other, because it makes it easier to establish and assert difference. In the process, though, we forget (or can forget) that these are real people, with real relationship bonds, who value and find meaning in polygamy.

Few polygamy novels, I think, take that last point seriously, which is why Brady Udall's recent novel, The Lonely Polygamist (Norton, 2010) stands out to me. Nowhere in this novel will you find a perverted old man, teenage bride, prairie dress, or any of the other token elements of modern polygamy narratives. Nor will you find any instances of rape or incest. The Lonely Polygamist is a novel for people who don't like polygamy novels.

Essentially, The Lonely Polygamist is "the story of a polygamist who has an affair," which we learn in the very first sentence (15). Golden Richards, the main character, has four wives, twenty-eight children, three homes, a dog, a couch that smells funny, and plenty of personal issues. He also has church responsibilities and a construction business that keeps him away from home most of the week.

And, yeah...he's in love with his boss's wife.

As a polygamist, Golden's life is already too complicated for him to handle. His various responsibilities have worn him down to a state of emotional and spiritual stagnation. To complicate matters even more, he is still mourning the death of his daughter, Glory, whose accidental death was largely his fault. When he begins his affair with his boss's wife, which really isn't much of an affair in the Hollywood sense, it is because he hates who he has become: an ineffective and emotionally distant husband and father, an indecisive and unsuccessful provider, and a lousy polygamist.

At 599 pages, The Lonely Polygamist has a lot to say and a lot going on. In Golden, for example, Udall addresses the state of American masculinity at the end of the twentieth century (and, by proxy, the beginning of the twenty-first). Golden's struggles--to provide, to be there for his family, to be assertive and decisive, to be just as tough as he is compassionate--are struggles that typically beset men, especially Mormon men, in post-John Wayne America. Golden, in this sense, is an Everyman with Everyman problems--only they are exaggerated with polygamy in the mix. Mostly, he feels--like most men, I imagine--that someone else could better fill his shoes: "someone stouthearted [...], someone wise and resolute and strong, a man of faith, a good father, someone not like him" (517).

Obviously, Golden isn't much of a hero. Still, Udall's characterization of him and his situation is sympathetic. In fact, that is one of the best aspects of this novel: it's sympathy. Many of its characters, such as Golden's son Rusty, are the socially awkward, misfit types. Rusty is a heavy-set twelve-year-old with a big imagination and a thing for romance novels and nice underwear. Easily, Udall could have made Rusty a stock character--just another funny fat kid--but he doesn't; instead, he gives Rusty the dignity of being human. In fact, it is in Rusty's loneliness, his desire to be accepted, and his recklessly insightful commentary on his family that we find the heart of the novel.

This sympathy extends even to minor characters, like Maureen Sinkfoyle, a young widow who hopes to become the next Mrs. Richards. Like Rusty, Maureen provides some comic relief for the novel, and she could have easily been merely a caricature: a pathetically desperate woman in a "thrift store dress and muddy sling-back shoes"--someone worthy of little more than our laughter and ridicule. But Udall's depiction of her, small as it is, lets us see her as a victim of her strange situation and demanding society, a "a cast-off, someone tossed aside in favor of the new, the fresh, the less complicated," a woman "running on her last fumes of hope" (493).

Even polygamy is treated sympathetically, which is rare for polygamy fiction. To some extent, in fact, the novel even lauds polygamy’s fundamental principle: that love is not something that needs limitation. For Golden and his wives, “love [is] no finite commodity […] subject to the cruel reckoning of addition and subtraction.” Rather, it is something that comes from a heart that “[can] open itself to all who [will] enter, like a house with windows and doors thrown wide, like the heart of God itself, vast and accommodating and holy, a mansion of rooms without number, full of multitudes without end” (545-46).

To be sure, The Lonely Polygamist does not address fully how polygamy’s fundamental gender inequality troubles that way of thinking about love: Golden, after all, can open his heart to many women, but his wives can only open their hearts to him and their children. Still, the novel does more than simply reduce polygamy to an old man’s sex drive, which helps to humanize those—men and women—who choose this lifestyle and value how it enriches their lives.

And it's not like the women in this novel are powerless to Golden's authority. For much of the novel, they are actually trying to get him to be more authoritative, “to take control, to embrace his God-given patriarchal authority, to […] make a decision once in a while” (553). Oddly, when Golden finally does begin to be a part of his family again, something of equality exists between him and his wives, and the family comes to have no dominate leader.

As I mentioned before, this novel has a lot going on in it. In addition to polygamy, it also addresses the nuclear bomb testing that ravaged Utah and its rural communities in the 1950s, when Golden and his first wife, Beverly, were married. In Golden's congregation, there is a pew called the "Row of Angels," which is reserved for handicapped children whose birth defects trace back to the fallout. Also, at the end of the novel, we learn that Beverly has lung cancer, another unforeseen outcome of the tests. Among other things, the addition of these details is another reminder that rash actions, whether on the national or family level, have unintended consequences that frequently harm those who deserve them least.

Before I end this review, I should note that the main criticism Mormons have leveled against this novel is that it has too much swearing and sexual content. It's true. The Lonely Polygamist does not adhere to the CleanFlicks Aesthetic, so it's not for everyone. It's content is pretty typical of other contemporary American novels.

With that said, I think the novel is one of the best examples of Contemporary Mormon fiction, even though its aesthetic is somewhat different from other works of Mormon fiction. If nothing else, it reminds us that deep down even the strangest among us are...well...mostly normal.

Mostly.

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