Golden Richards is in a bad way. He has four wives but is flirting with another woman. He has 28 children but can’t stop thinking about the accidental death of his handicapped daughter, Glory. His floundering construction company has taken a job remodeling a brothel, though he tells everyone at church he’s working on a senior center. And he is trying desperately to remove chewing gum from a place where no gum should ever get stuck.

Welcome to the life of the Richards family. Golden, the lonely polygamist of the title, is trying desperately to keep wives and children content, even though he isn’t really communicating with any of them. An awkward, shy man with a bad overbite, Golden stumbles through his over-populated life unsure of just how he went from living in the backwaters of Louisiana to being the designated heir of his religious sect. His wives and children, divided among three dwellings, exist in a kind of communal chaos that only increases when Golden becomes involved with his boss’s wife and is even less available. Golden’s third wife, Rose-of-Sharon, has a breakdown and Trish, the fourth wife, begins to think maybe communal marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Rose’s son Rusty, perhaps The Lonely Polygamist’s funniest and most sympathetic character, hatches a revenge plot with deadly consequences after his plans for a unique birthday party go down the tubes.

It would have been so easy for a novel about polygamy to offer up a load of stereotypes—men in buttoned-up shirts quoting from the Book of Mormon and blank-eyed women in prairie dresses with weirdly puffy hairdos—but author Brady Udall steers clear of all caricatures. A Mormon himself (though not a polygamist!), he is comfortable with every contradiction in the Richards’ unusual lifestyle and engages the reader with fully realized characters in surprisingly touching situations, from Trish who craves the warmth and chatter of the extended family as much as she wonders what it would be like to leave it behind, to first wife Beverly whose staunch faith obscures a shame-filled past, to any one of the Richards children who simultaneously thrive in the camaraderie and suffer from the lack of attention in the extended family households. Neither a case for polygamy nor an argument against it, The Lonely Polygamist tells the story of an American family’s struggle for happiness amid discord, with enough comic dysfunction to feel familiar to any reader, no matter what kind of family they hail from.

Despite its length, The Lonely Polygamist is a pleasure to read—immediately engaging and filled with laugh-out-loud humor. Nevertheless, it would have benefited from some judicious editing. With a 30-member family and multiple outside characters, the novel hardly needs to venture into the results of nuclear testing in the desert. Also, the multiple standoffs between Golden and his tough-guy boss Ted Leo felt extraneous to the overall plot. Still, The Lonely Polygamist is a great American novel, perhaps the great American novel of the year.

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