Saturday, June 05, 2010

Review: Udall, "The Lonely Polygamist" (reviewed by DeWayne Hafen)


Title: The Lonely Polygamist
Author: Brady Udall
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Fiction
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 572
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-393-33554-5
Price: $26.95

Reviewed by DeWayne Hafen for the Association for Mormon Letters

When this book first came up for review I considered myself the ideal candidate to write a review. After all, I share many of the advertised traits of the hero of the novel. I am a practicing polygamist, husband to at least four wives and father to at least 28 children. I am living alone with only an old red dog for company in an 8,000 square foot house. Surely I would be able to relate to "The Lonely Polygamist". At least that is the way it seemed to me.

I now realize that I am the worst candidate to write a fair review. Too many facts get in the way.

A novel is after all, a novel, a fantasy contrived in the author's mind. Considerable latitude is given for any relation to reality. Still, when the author uses real places, people and situations, he should get his facts straight. Brady Udall definitely didn't do his homework very well.

I was raised in southern Utah and Nevada with relatives in all the fundamentalist groups. Reading this novel I soon began to suffer from an overload of twisted facts about people, places, and dates that are pulled into the story for bit appearances.

For example it appears that the author based his rendering of Ervil Lebaron on the mostly nonsensical movie "PROPHET OF EVIL: THE ERVIL LEBARON STORY" starring Brian Dennehy.   Brian Dennehy is a fine actor and can appear real mean, but he is a small, barrel-chested man compared to Ervil LeBaron who stood at a muscular 6 ft. 4 inches.  Hardly one to be completely intimidated by the 6 foot 6 inch hero of the story.  Also the dates are all wrong. Ervil's brother Joel LeBaron was killed in August of 1972. No Brother supported Ervil in any way after 1971. Still we have Brian, AKA Ervil, showing up in Ervil's post 1974 trademark green LTD Ford driven by a brother.

Also, what about highway 19. It doesn't and didn't exist.  Is it an inversion of highway 91?  Highway 91 used to run from St. George to Las Vegas, where one would turn north on highway 95 to Nye county.  He describes a ride though the Virgin River Gorge on Interstate 15, but it didn't open through the gorge until December 14, 1973. Facts are such stubborn things.

And the partially polygamous community of Virgin, Utah.  I remember it in the 1960's as a very small town that has grown since then.   Did the author ever visit there? Did he even Google it for basic demographics? As of the census of 2000 there were 384 people, 102 families residing in the town and get this…approximately 10 percent more marriage age men than women living there.   Big enough to have a Beauty shop, a full time sheriff, a mortuary, and a furniture store? Sure.

The hero is also a member of the twelve apostles who rule his church. Most of the fundamentalist groups that have apostles have seven, not twelve and they call them High Priest Apostles, the few exceptions being the LeBaron and TLC groups and perhaps some few others that I do not know of.

I don't know if there was ever a test bomb named Roy, but the description is pretty accurate for a real blast named Harry -- "Dirty Harry" who rained radioactive debris on the St. George area for several hours and rained radioactive gas and debris over the US and Canada. I suppose it was necessary that Golden and his first wife, trying to consummate their marriage apparently somewhere in the  Kiabab Forest, should get doused with this debris and breathe and drink their fill. They and his future wife Nola needing a good dose of radiation to account for birth defects and other health problems.

I suspect that the author. Brady Udall, learned about polygamy by watching "Big Love".   Both "Big Love" and "The Lonely Polygamist" put a lot of emphasis on the sexual aspects of polygamy. Only a non-polygamist would think that polygamy is all about sex. Believe me, it's not.
At least the writers for "Big Love," both homosexuals with no personal experience with polygamy or even monogamy for that matter, did their homework.

Since the story has nothing to do with polygamy I wondered about the need to pull it into the story. At first I thought it might be just to pose the question of why a man with more women than he could handle would want another woman?

Later it dawned on me that the exaggerated chaos in his family was really what it was about. Golden had literally procreated himself away from a place at the table. He was having trouble sleeping with his wives because he feared another pregnancy. His boss's wife represented sex with no pregnancy risk since he was going to use a condom with her. Once he bought into the use of condoms, he became a sexual powerhouse with his wives, especially the young and beautiful one who had cheated on him out of loneliness and desperation to have a child.  God bless the leaky condom theory of pregnancy. Of course no real polygamist would ever practice birth control, but then again, this story isn't about polygamy.

All that said, it was, after all, a novel. We actually get the story from three different viewpoints.  The main character is the husband, Golden Richards. His son Rusty and his young, beautiful and unfulfilled wife, Trish, each carry a minor, but important role.  Once I stopped my critical review and just read the novel, I found it to be an enjoyable but somewhat long read.   It's about equal to the standard romance novels that are so popular, just told mostly from the man's viewpoint instead of the woman's. It should sell well with those who buy books of that genre.


Kirk said...

Agreed that you may be the worst candidate to review this book, because this may be the worst review of the book I've read. I don't think most readers care about the small inaccuracies in is fiction, after all, and Udall acknowledged he had used places and times in history opportunistically. As a sidenote, Udall has also said the story is not about polygamy, but about family. He never intended or claimed to have written a comprehensive factual account of polygamy and all it entails.

I say this was a largely missed opportunity for the Association of Mormon letters. That book holds a lot of great stuff that, I think, could touch many readers' hearts and minds.

Susie Q said...

Dennehy small? Like or dislike the film, he is not a small man. Yes, NOW, at 72, he is shorter (We all shrink as we age)but at one time he stood a full 6 foot 2. And then some.

Stratton said...

Udall has said in various interviews that he's never watched an episode of Big Love, only seen a few minutes here and there. Besides, he had the story conceived and partially written before Big Love ever flickered on a TV screen; wrote a polygamy piece in 1998 for Esquire magazine.

Swa said...

Just read the book, and am wondering if you can clear something up for me. Who the heck does Trish sleep with to get herself pregnant at the end of the book? I've tried and tried to go back and find this information with no luck. If you can help me, that would be great! - just post the answer back here please.

Anonymous said...

I think Trish sleeps with that guy she likes. I can't even think of his name. Remember she stayed with him for 5 days.

Luxembourg said...

The Lonely Polygamist was one of those novels that are not easily forgotten. Although the novel is peppered with humorous situations, like Golden having to explain how gum ended up stuck in his nether-region, it also has moments of profound sadness, like when Golden reflects on the accidental death of his handicapped daughter, and others that would lead to serious spoilers. I thought, I would have an immediate dislike for Golden, being a polygamist, but instead I pitied him. Numerous wives and women and opportunities for sex, brought him no pleasure. He wandered from house to house, unable to remember the names of his children, unless he sang a little tune, and even being with his large family, he is a man unfulfilled, floundering in a life he was just not cut out for.