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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 6, 2010

'Lonely Polygamist' a potential classic

Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

'The Lonely Polygamist', W.W. Norton & Co.

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The title of Brady Udall's new novel is an eye-grabber: How could Utah businessman Golden Richards, husband to four and father to a staggering 28 children, ever be lonely?

Before the tale is half over, you wonder how you could have missed it: Golden's time is so divided among his many wives and offspring that all of them feel neglected, and respond with the appropriate resentment. Even worse, so fiercely do they compete for Golden's attention that he finds it necessary to withhold nearly every expression of love, lest a conflagration erupt over a wayward endearment.

Overwhelmed by the unrelenting need of his gargantuan family, Golden escapes into his work, which despite his Mormon faith involves supervising the construction of a new wing to a brothel just over the Nevada border. (His family and neighbors think it's a senior citizens' center.)

The only relief the job has to offer Golden is the presence of an alluring woman he meets there. It's the emotional isolation and joylessness of his home life that eventually drive him to seek refuge in her arms.

Wisely, Udall does not introduce the reader to every member of the family, but lingers on enough of them to give the reader the full scope of the turmoil within the massive Richards clan. The result is a brilliantly crafted mini-epic that is at turns hilarious, terrifying and heartbreaking.

While Golden's story is compelling, the real show-stopper is 11-year-old Rusty Richards, branded "the family terrorist" for his abrasive personality and his tendency to try on his sisters' underwear. (His justification: All of his own drawers are ratty, ill-fitting hand-me-downs.)

A prolific troublemaker, Rusty exemplifies all the worst things about being a "plyg kid." Ignored by his father, censured by his aunts and reviled by his siblings, Rusty acts out in weird, spectacular ways that feed a vicious cycle of punishment and ostracism. And yet every bizarre antic makes sense according to his own warped logic. It's a testament to the author's compassion that we understand and even sympathize when Rusty locks his family out of the house, or steals their shoes and scatters them as he escapes on his bike.

With some luck, this novel will be optioned for a movie by some smart studio executive. There's something cinematic about the way Udall presents this tale, with at least a handful of dramatic scenes that seem to beg for a big-screen treatment. Furthermore, Udall's poetic rendering of the Southwestern landscape brings to mind the lingering, panoramic shots of films like "Brokeback Mountain" and "A River Runs Through It."

But most of all it's Golden, Rusty and the novel's other complex characters who make "The Lonely Polygamist" a potential classic.