Saturday, January 1, 2011

Got Ninety-Nine Problems

Actually, Golden Richards has more than just ninety-nine problems. Richards, a member of a small and conservative wing of Mormonism, has four wives, twenty-eight children, an out-of-control home life, a failing business, a crushing load of grief, and an uncontrollable crush on his boss's wife.

Polygamy was a thing in 2010 - National Geographic did a big story on the FLDS after the raids in Utah and a companion TV episode, "The Polygamists." There was also HBO's Big Love and TLC's Sister Wives, which featured a quad of dumpy housewives and their creepy, 80s-coifed husband.

So Brady Udall's novel is certainly timely, as least in the context of our weird national obsessions, and Udall makes a masterful move in making Golden, the novel's protagonist, an utterly harmless, shambling retriever of a man, dopy, big-hearted, and sympathetic, very different from the Elizabeth Smart kidnapper or the suspected child rapists of the FLDS raids.

At the novel's outset, Golden and his four wives are all dealing with their own griefs. Golden still fiercely mourns the loss of his daughter, Glory, the only one of his children with whom he really connected. Trying to resurrect an ailing construction company, he's making a brutal commute to the Nevada desert to build a brothel for an erratic boss. His youngest wife, Trish, is trying to cope with the emotional aftermath of a still-birth, and his other three wives have their litter of children, internicine squabbling, and dearth of connection and attention to their husband to handle.

As Golden's attention is further distracted from his deteriorating domestic situation by his boss's entrancing wife, tensions at his house reach a fever pitch as one particularly difficult child, Rusty, develops a dangerous relationship with an explosives-obsessed loner who leads a hermit-like existence in the desert.

Udall's description of the crowded, chaotic plural lifestyle have a ring of authenticity. His "plyg" children are not the docile, Little-House-on-the-Prairie dress wearing girls or dweeby boys of the National Geographic article. Instead, they're more like pack animals, exquisitely attuned to any sign of favoritism, the way children who are chronically starved of love or attention are, and quite often cruel to each other. Udall makes it very hard for the reader to dislike Golden, taking a detour through his lonely childhood and complicated, often heart-breaking relationship with his wives and children.

The chunks of expository chapters plunked in here and there (helpfully italicized, too!) seem clunky and unnecessary - there's really no reason for the author to take us on a tour of "the boy's" misery or "Wife #1's" obsessive need for control - Udall's a good enough writer that he doesn't need to spell it out for the reader, and it makes it seem like he either doesn't trust his reader to get it or his writing to get the point across, so he has to belabor the point. The ending is also somewhat of a let-down, as neither Golden nor his wives seem able to address the yawning emotional gulfs underneath their relationship, and instead careen in the opposite direction and enlarge the family even more.

I get the sense that Udall is treading carefully here. No one wants to endorse polygamy - heavens, no, what with all those creepy old men in Utah and Smart's crazy-eyed captor, so he very scrupulously makes it plain that Golden is not interested in sixteen year olds, no sir! Although a plyg lost boy (those supernumerous sons who are expelled from Mormom compounds since there aren't enough sixteen year olds for all those creepy guys to go around without chucking out some of the male children once they hit young adulthood) turns up, Udall ignores the issues that make polygamy so distasteful in the United States - child trafficking, statutory rape, child abandonment.

Instead, the issues the plural family faces here are not that much different than any other family with a similar dearth of time, love, money, and a few unresolved emotional problems. While that, and Udall's deftly drawn characters, is certainly compelling, I can't help by feel that Udall's cheating a bit here.

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