Born to tell stories

Published May 1, 2010 6:00 pm
Books » Mormon writer Brady Udall mines a sprawling tale of contemporary polygamy to find literary gold.
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The smart attraction of Brady Udall's second novel begins with its oxymoronic title, The Lonely Polygamist .

As the book is released this week, publishing insiders are pegging it as the next breakout Western novel, the best new Mormon fiction in a generation. Based on the advance buzz, The Lonely Polygamist might also be considered the kind of contemporary story that deserves to be labeled a Great American Novel.

"This book is going to be huge in our neck of the woods because it's topical, but I also think it's going to be huge nationally," says Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop, who will host Udall's reading on May 4. "I think this book will be on our bookshelves for a long time to come. I think it will be part of our literature."

The novel's opening line plunges readers into the compelling, rollicking story of southern Utah contractor Golden Richards, his four wives and the family's 28 children, struggling to get by in the Jimmy Carter years. "To put it as simply as possible: This is the story of a polygamist who has an affair," Udall writes. "But there is much more to it than that, of course: the life of any polygamist, even when not complicated by lies and secrets and infidelity, is anything but simple."

The patriarch is a man often confused about where he's supposed to stay the night, who apologizes so often for his failures that his middle wife refers to him as "Monsieur Pardonnez-moi." He's commuting to Nevada to construct what he tells his wives is an old-age home, but is really a brothel.

In this family, mothers ignore the children as they regularly stampede inside the family's Big House, creating a racetrack around the kitchen. And for comfort and reassurance, their father habitually sing-songs the names of all 28 children to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare": "EmNephiHelamanPaulineNaomiJosephineParleyNovellaGaleSybilDeeanne. ..."

Domesticity, times four » Udall, 40, a father of four and an associate professor at Boise State University, considers his 600-page book "a big family novel." "In America, we do things in big and extreme ways," says the writer, a native of St. Johns, Ariz., who graduated from Brigham Young University and the University of Iowa.

Of course, not all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are likely to embrace this book as a "Mormon novel." Mormons have been shying away from polygamy stories since the LDS Church officially abandoned the practice in 1890.

Udall identifies himself as a Mormon writer while admitting he's not what would be termed active, or a believer, exactly, although his wife -- he's got only one -- is devout. "I'm not sure I believe in God on most days, but the search for God is the most important human endeavor there is," Udall says, "and most writers won't even take the subject up."

The Lonely Polygamist is an ambitious yet everyday story that unfolds through the points-of-view of Golden, his youngest wife, Trish, and 11-year-old Rusty, son No. 5, who's labeled the "family terrorist." One significant piece of furniture is a hand-me-down couch, nicknamed The Barge. The burnt-orange plaid, fishy-smelling sofa sparks a fight among the wives and later serves as Golden's refuge.

Even the family's houses get to speak up for a chapter or three; also anthropomorphized is a nuclear bomb explosion. "If people see it as a polygamy novel," Udall says, "then I've failed."

For all its wry humor, the story is deeply anchored in the pain and loss of parenting, as it explores the complicated relationships between men and women. Doubt, faith and sex -- or not having it and not talking about that -- are shadows that hang over the Richards family.

In many ways, Udall's big domestic novel functions as an alternative history of the 1970s. In contrast to the free-love generation in the outside world, Golden and his wives, Beverly, Nola, Rose-of-Sharon and Trish, burrow into their religious enclave, hiding from complicated and unfulfilling pasts.

A literary bet » At a time of great uncertainty in the publishing world, W.W. Norton, the New York publisher, is betting on the appeal of Udall's followup to 2001's The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint . The Lonely Polygamist received a first printing of 50,000 copies, sizable for a work of literary fiction. His publisher is investing in Udall's work by sending him on an increasingly rare 27-city book tour.

All spring, other publishers were noting the buzz for Udall's book, says Nicole Aragi, the writer's agent. "I kept having lunch with editors who were saying: 'I hear you've got the big book for May.' "

Booksellers have been effusive in their praise, noting Udall's wry humor and his ability to make his flawed characters very human. "I've had a number of books that have been best-sellers," says Aragi, whose authors include Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer, "and I've never seen a book that has gotten so many quotes from booksellers."

Writer Darrell Spencer, a Las Vegas native who taught Udall in the early 1990s at BYU, called the characters in The Lonely Polygamist "wonderfully developed" before offering even higher praise. Spencer said he got so involved in reading the story of one particular American family, he forgot to get distracted by the issues of polygamy.

"It's the first novel set in this culture that absolutely opens it up to everyone," Burton says. "It explains polygamy to people who don't have a clue what it is, and makes it understandable and sympathetic, while dealing with what pain it throws families into. You can't miss that -- everybody is in pain."

The bookseller adds: "It's the way he writes about social issues of polygamy, religion, family, abuse -- inadvertent or intentional -- and adultery. He deals with all of these issues, and yet he uses humor and compassion around every one of them. That's kind of a miracle."

Other Utah writers, too, say they hope Udall's novel will open the doors for artfully crafted stories from Mormon writers to find a national audience, separate from the thriving local market of faith-promoting morality tales.

Before "Big Love" » Like many Westerners, Udall can trace his familiarity with polygamy to his family history, although he didn't know much about the subject while growing up.

In 1880, church leaders called the writer's great-great-grandfather, David King Udall, to be a bishop and colonize the St. Johns area. Like many Mormon leaders of the era, he felt pressure to take on plural wives. He later served a federal prison sentence before President Grover Cleveland pardoned him. (Arizona political legends Stewart and Mo Udall are Brady Udall's grandfather's first cousins. As the writer explains: "They're descended from the first wife; they're the Democrats. We're descended from the second wife, and we're the Republicans. That's the way it worked.")

Udall taught English in Korea and served an LDS mission to Brazil before graduating with an English degree from BYU. While attending the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop in the mid-1990s, Udall had already earned a reputation for crossing boundaries, with a literary résumé listing awards from BYU and Playboy magazine. (Winning the men's-magazine fiction contest prompted a call home to his devout LDS parents. "I've got good news and bad news," is how he recalls the conversation.)

Back in 1998 -- a lifetime ago in pop-culture years, pre HBO's "Big Love," pre the Texas raid on The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' ranch -- Udall began exploring contemporary polygamy by writing a nonfiction piece for Esquire magazine. The piece was based on conversations with a family who lived in suburban Salt Lake City.

"When I wrote that article, nobody was talking about polygamy," Udall says. "I was worried that nobody would want to read it or talk about it because it was all so strange."

In his research, Udall observed how isolated the husband was, a man who shuttled between houses and families, keeping a satchel of clothing stashed in the back of his car.

Simply put: The family patriarch didn't have a room of his own. To Udall, the polygamist wives seemed happier and more content than the men.

An affair, a wedding and a funeral » Those paradoxes inspired the fictional character of Golden, who becomes isolated and turns away from his wives after a daughter's tragic death.

Udall began writing the novel in 2002. As he began, he knew the story would contain an affair, a wedding and a funeral, and he had already sketched out a significant plot point concerning a piece of chewing gum.

"All I do when I sit down to write is think about a scene: How can I make this funny?" says Udall, citing the dark humor of Mark Twain. "I want to place comedy and tragedy in as close of quarters as possible. I think that's what the great writers do."

Udall soon discovered how ambitious his project was. The themes he was exploring -- explicating the culture of a family, considering the implications of nuclear testing, while setting religious practice against the backdrop of Western contemporary history -- all had deep personal resonance. "I knew I had to go for it," he says. "I didn't think anybody else could do this. I don't want that to sound presumptuous, but I knew I could do this book and do it in an ambitious way."

After all, maybe imagining the story of a polygamist having an affair wasn't any more presumptuous than writing a novel about a half-Indian, half-Caucasian orphan boy ( Edgar Mint was optioned by Michael Stipe for a film, although that project has since stalled).

"I grew up in a giant Mormon family," says Udall, the third of nine children. "Writing about a family with 28 kids in it is actually closer to my experience than writing about an orphan."

The lonely writer » Still, over the next six years, the story sprawled out of control to nearly 1,400 pages. He offered this excuse to his agent about why the book was taking so long: "I've got four wives and 28 children to name."

At his desk, at times he felt as alone and isolated as his protagonist. He looked to Dickens or Twain as writing models, and wanted to push beyond the expectations of Western regional literature. More character development, more relationships, more plot, that is, and less description of mountains and canyons.

"I love the country, and I'm going to describe it, but it's not going to be at the forefront," Udall says. "There's a clichéd Western voice, the kind of taciturn, male, Western voice. It's Hemingway, or something. It just feels like it has been done too many times. It just feels like we need a more expansive voice."

Throughout the writing, he worried about how contemporary female readers would respond to the story and was relieved when his wife, Kate, praised his depiction of the Richards women, particularly Trish, the youngest wife.

Along the way, he had to consider his own dismissive feelings about polygamy. "I came to understand they're living the lifestyle that our church and our forefathers used to live," he says. "We are looking at our heritage. To turn our back on them is dishonest."

The best fiction, of course, doesn't arise from political arguments or moral stances, but from unforgettably believable characters and diamond-precise language. In the end, readers will decide if they can relate to The Lonely Polygamist 's super-sized southern Utah family.

One family, struggling to keep all the kids fed and accounted for. One family, struggling against everyday loss to build the Kingdom of God.

After nearly a decade of thinking about Golden Richards and his marital problems, Udall remains interested in the contradictions of living the Principle. "What I find fascinating about polygamy is that it can be viewed as a deeply patriarchal, old-fashioned way of life," the writer says, "but also as just another alternative lifestyle for the modern age."


The touring writer at TKE, elsewhere

Brady Udall reads from his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist. The writer says his central character, Golden Richards, was named for the iconic LDS Church apostle J. Golden Kimball, noted for his folksy preaching style and his predilection for swearing from the pulpit. "Hell, they can't excommunicate me," Kimball allegedly said. "I repent too damned fast."

Where » The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

When » May 4 at 7 p.m.

Tickets » Required for the book-signing portion of the event. Information at 801-484-9100.

Other Utah readings

June 10, 7 p.m. » Sundancer Books, 975 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435-772-3400

June 23, 7 p.m. » Arches Book Co., 89 N. Main St., Moab, 435-259-0782

Excerpts from 'The Lonely Polygamist'

Trish Richards »"On this crowded couch, in this crowded house, here it was: the crowded life she had chosen, in all its glory, a life that had to be, by its very definition, divided and shared and shared again."

Golden Richards » "He was doing it to escape. To get away four or five days out of every week from feuding wives and the ever-circling mob of little ones, from the jealousies and long-term resentments, from church meetings, from dentist bills that arrived with horrifying regularity, from the darkness that fell on his heart whenever he walked through the halls of one of his homes, looking in on the children tangled in their bedsheets, thinking, Whatever happens, I am responsible. They all rely on me."

Who gets to tell Mormon stories?

For future arts stories, we're interested in hearing your opinions: Has the critical culture of Mormonism evolved enough to produce artful literary fiction for readers on both sides of the Zion Curtain? Is the title "Mormon fiction" even accurate for books such as The Lonely Polygamist? Send short comments in e-mail -- subject line: "Mormon fiction" -- to features@sltrib.com.



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