Golden Richards: Husband to four wives. Father of twenty-eight children. Confidant to churchmen and pimps. You'd think such a man would command fear and respect. In fact, Golden, the lonely polygamist in Brady Udall's wickedly funny novel, spends most of his energy trying not to reveal himself as a pansy.
Golden's character took shape in the shadow of his mother's bitterness. His father, Royal, was a Louisiana charmer and a gambler. In the west, uranium was the new gold. So Royal lit out, promising to return a rich man. As luck would have it, he did get rich, but he didn't return. Instead, he got religion. He was a propertied polygamist when he sent for the teenaged Golden. But by then the dye was cast. Abandoned literally by a scheming father and virtually by a depressed mother, Golden had developed the chronic uncertainty of a child forced to raise himself. Out west, he became not a self-made man like his father, but a man to whom life happens. Mormonism happened to him. Marriage happened. Fatherhood happened. In the prime of his life, he's a diffident patriarch, trying to do right, but mostly dodging his wives and kids.
We spend entertaining pages in the company of Golden's wives. Beverly, the controlling first wife, enlists two sister-wives in varied schemes to make Golden a better man. They encourage a fourth marriage, hoping pretty Trish will stabilize their skittish husband. But, just like a real woman, Trish has real problems that scare Golden. So Beverly casts about for a fifth wife. Mostly, that's what the people of this novel do add complications to overly complicated lives, with hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking consequences.
Udall draws humor from richly flawed characters, but he treats them with abundant compassion. My favorite, 12-year old Rusty, is full of spit. A lumpy, flamboyant boy, Rusty fights the tyrannical Beverly and rails against his absent father. On the lam, Rusty meets a new friend a Vet building a bomb shelter at the edge of Nevada's nuclear test site. Rusty explains he can't go home. At home, they punish a kid for having an "inquisitional mind." At home, "an extremely evil and unfriendly person named Beverly would whip the snot out of him with her lion-tamer's bullwhip."
Brady Udall writes the west like the native son he is. His landscapes bear the imprint of unapologetic sinners and accidental saints, who can't help but leave indelible marks. On people. On the land. Just like all of us.