Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, follows a suite of characters orbiting around Golden Richards, a polygamist with four wives and more than two dozen children who is trying to keep his construction business afloat and manage a family that practically requires an MBA due to its size. The novel shies away from overt religious discussion and towards the day-to-day comic combat necessary to merely the family together and functional.
This interview was conducted in May 2010 at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. Although this is an incredibly lame comment, it’s nonetheless true that I simply forgot to post it when other issues arose. It’s here now, however. As we got started, Udall mentioned Daughter of the Saints: Growing Up in Polygamy by Dorothy Allred Solomon.
Udall reminded me of someone slightly too small and far too wary to make it on a high school football team. He spoke with a paradoxical mix of certainty and exploration. The first half of the interview is below.
Jake Seliger: I was listening to Bookworm on the way up here. It’s a radio show on KCRW, and Michael Silverblatt was talking to Michael Cunningham, and Silverblatt said Cunningham’s book was really about the primal relationship between fathers and sons. I heard that and thought to myself, “That’s a lot of what’s going on in The Lonely Polygamist as well,” except I was too dense to notice it the first time through.
Brady Udall: There’s a lot of distractions. Right? There’s no doubt that one of the things I was interested is that Golden, the main character, is an only child abandoned by his father. And then, he manages to have 28 children of his own.
JS: Almost overcompensating.
BU: Yes, yes. But is no better a father because of it. And I think that’s where I’m interested. Numbers have nothing to do with it, really. It’s just there’s something in men—and this is a gross generalization, but we have difficulty taking care of our obligations, emotionally. That’s part of what the book is about: Golden’s not up to taking care of his obligations emotionally.
JS: He seems unable to deal with his emotions in relation to Royal [Golden’s father]. It seems that there’s this Royal-Golden-Rusty [Golden’s son]—I don’t want to call the eternal golden braid, but—
BU: Yeah, you look at the names and there’s something going on. There’s definitely something there, and somewhere in the book I talk about the curse of the father. And we all live with that in some way or another.
JS: Sometimes the absent father, too.
BU: Yeah. So that’s definitely part of what I was doing.
JS: You mentioned that it’s not an issue of numbers, but it seems like there’s something going on—when you scale a family from, say, a two-person couple, to four children, to twenty-eight children, it seems like something has to change there. There’s a passage about that I wrote down somewhere—I can’t find it right now—
BU: Well, I don’t know what it says, but it might be the passage that says something about, when you have 28 children, and you’re a father, you have to try to treat them all equally. Which is nearly impossible. Because he’s not up to the task—if you pat one kid on the head, then everybody’s going to have to have a pat on the head—at some point you can’t balance—
JS: It’s a matter of time.
BU: Yes. He’s just not up to the challenge. He doesn’t know how to manage this. Could he have managed it with three or four children? Maybe, I don’t know.
JS: It’s funny that you use the word “manage,” because it seems like at this scale you almost need to have a managerial mindset.
BU: You have to be a logistical genius of some kind.
JS: And it’s strange, because there’s section on page 21—early in the novel, and Golden says that “whenever he walked into one of his houses he felt more than ever like a stranger, an outlander unfamiliar with the customs of the place.” It seems like you almost have to be unfamiliar with the customs of a place if you’re doing this rotation.
BU: The thing I’d say about that, those houses aren’t his. The family is a stranger. The wives are controlling the houses. He’s just an intruder in some ways. And it makes some sense because at the center of everything, yet he’s on the outside of it all. Which I think is cool.
JS: It’s interesting too that you use that kind of language—the center of everything but outside of it all—because to my mind I almost hear an aspect of the religious part of the novel, because religion seems to influence everything that’s going on, and yet it doesn’t seem as constant a presence. So it’s like the center that’s also outside. I don’t know if you agree or not, but that’s what I was hearing.
BU: Religion dominates these people’s lives, but I try to avoid it as much as possible.
JS: Which you succeeded at.
BU: I tried to, so if I include that I’m going to have to write a book that’s 2,000 pages long.
JS: You said in another interview that this one started out at 1,400—
BU: Fourteen, and I did address some of the religious or spiritual stuff. But really what I’m interested in is really—and I’ve said it before—how, how do you do it? How does somebody manage this? And there’s enough there to easily fill 1,400 pages. Some of the more esoteric stuff got left out.
JS: I think when I was coming in, I expected religion to be more front and center, and more important than interpersonal politics. Maybe it’s unfair. I don’t know if my perception is off—I might be unfairly stereotyping a lot of these people.
BU: If you think about it, even for religious people, who would take their religion very seriously, the religion disappears in some ways. It’s just their life. And so when you write fiction, that’s what you tend to focus on—the details of everyday life. How people live, how people interact, is what I think as a fiction writer you really have to think about. That’s going to make interesting fiction. Ideas . . .
JS: Have to be embodied in the events—
BU: Right, right. You can’t—they talk about a novel of ideas. I don’t think there’s ever been a successful novel of ideas, to be honest with you. There’s no such thing. People make the attempt. I’ve always felt, if you’re going write about ideas, write an essay.
JS: Pick a different genre?
JS: That’s funny, because I wrote this paper for one of my grad seminars on Melville’s Pierre, which—I don’t know what to call it besides being about ideas—
BU: I’ve never read it, so I don’t know.
JS: Because no one has read Melville after Moby-Dick, because he seems to—my academic adviser is a guy named Ed Dryden. He’s written a lot about Melville and argues that Melville wants to break with fiction after Moby-Dick.
BU: That’s interesting. I’ve never heard that. That’s why people don’t read Melville after Moby-Dick.
JS: Well, that’s how you get Pierre and Israel Potter and The Confidence Man, which are novels that as far as I can tell no one but academics read.
BU: I’ve read The Confidence Man, I can tell you that. I have virtually no memory of it.
JS: Maybe that says something if you have virtually no memory of it.
JS: As far as religion goes, there’s also a book by a critic named J. Hillis Miller called The Disappearance of God. He argues that in the Nineteenth Century God basically goes from being an active presence in people’s lives in fiction to being an absent center.
BU: And it’s continued to this day. Not to ask you this question, but—
JS: Why not?
BU: Can you name any contemporary fiction writers who address God in the lives of people? It’s very rare.
JS: I wonder if they’re out there, but they’re being published by religious presses that I don’t read.
BU: It could be, but Flannery O’Connor was writing about this in a certain way.
JS: Or a lot of Catholic writers, like Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene.
BU: Jewish writers don’t tend to write a lot about God. And it’s weird because America’s such a religious place. We’re not Europe. We’re very religious, yet if you read fiction of the past 50, 70 years, you’d never have any idea we’re a religious place.
JS: Yeah, or at least mainstream fiction. A lot of the Jewish writers are dealing with Judaism and Jewish culture more.
BU: Right. They’re not dealing with God. And it’s because it’s difficult, that’s really why. Most writers—I feel the same way—don’t feel like they have the authority to deal with such a large subject. But it’s still disturbing to see the lack of people—religious people—in fiction. And very often they’re the villain. And I’m not religious, so I’m not defending this in any way. I’m not a religious person.
JS: It’s like Michael Chabon’s book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I don’t know if you’ve read it.
BU: Of course I’ve read it.
JS: The black hats, the Orthodox, are the villains.
BU: And he gets in trouble. Among Jews, he gets in trouble for his depiction.
JS: A little bit. But I don’t think he does like Philip Roth did—
BU: But people still get upset. I think one of the reason writers aren’t address it—if they don’t come from a religious background—I know this from experience—people get upset. If you’re going to depict the religion and religious people of that culture, they want you to depict it in a positive light. And if you don’t, they see it as betrayal.
JS: But it seems like people, oftentimes, whether they’re religious or not, reading about people in a positive light is boring. You want to read about foibles—
BU: That’s absolutely right. Life—fiction is about trouble. It’s about nastiness. It’s not about nice things. It never is.
JS: We have plenty of nastiness here—especially with Golden’s boss. Also with Rusty to some extent. Because he’s—
BU: He’s a little jerk. He’s not a kind—you know, there are idealized children in fiction. They’re education, they’re overly smart, they read in their spare time, I don’t know what. And you know, you don’t see that in real kids. A lot of them are little brats, like Rusty.
[Food shows up.]
Rusty’s a tough one.
JS: At the same time, he’s somewhat justified, and some of his behaviors are understandable. I mean, there’s the scene with his birthday party. And because there’s all these birthday parties—they get back to this individual / privacy issue. At that moment June says about Rusty, “I know he’s going to end up like me. No family, lost, wondering who he’s supposed to be with, what he’s supposed to do.” And it seems like a pretty accurate comment—this idea of lacking family or being lost. It’s easy to get lost in all these people.
BU: In families that large, you do get lost very easily. If you go along with the program, you’re okay, but some people aren’t cut out for that. You can be in trouble. And there’s no place for you. It’s especially true for the boys.
JS: Yeah. It never happens, but it seems like if Rusty were to go on, he’d be really lost, really wondering. Kind of like Golden.
BU: This happens to polygamous boys all the time. If you think about it, the math doesn’t work. There can’t be—all the boys can’t have four wives. All the men can’t have four wives. It just doesn’t work that way. So three out of those four men have to go somewhere else. They can’t hang around.
JS: It’s like what Tim Harford wrote about in The Logic of Life. He had a chapter called “The Marriage Supermarket,” where he develops a theoretical model of what happens if you have 20 men and 20 women who all want to marry. If you take one away from either side, the gender politics shift very rapidly. You can actually see stuff like this happening on college campuses, because now more women than men go to college.
BU: That’s right! It’s in our favor now. Well, too bad I’m not in school. You’ve got it better than we did.
JS: Yeah, and these shifts bring out different kinds of politics.
BU: It’s happening in China, where there are more boys born than girls. And that’s one of the inherent weaknesses of that culture—it’s just mathematics.
JS: And it’s a problem for the men and boys who will end up wandering, like Rusty probably will.
BU: You can end up with no place. You make one false move, you end up on the outs. That’s what happens.
JS: Even Golden growing up with his father, there was wandering for different reasons.
BU: There was a lot of unhappiness. And so there is a correlation between Golden and Rusty, obviously. I guess the way of thinking of it—it’s just easy to end up going over the edge.
JS: If Rusty gets away from the mob—if he survives—maybe he goes on.
BU: You could take it a long ways. Rusty’s sort of like the sacrificial lamb of the family. Somebody has to—something has to happen to bring this family back together. The one who doesn’t belong, is having the hardest time with the family—is the one who’s sacrificed for the greatest good.
JS: You have a feeling Rusty would not perceive it that way.
BU: No, no, the sacrificial virgin never does. It’s like, “Why me, man? Why am I getting thrown in the volcano? This sucks.”
JS: The issue of sacrifice is interesting to me. At the end—I think it’s the second-to-last page—we have Beverley’s voice, and she says, “She would spend the rest of her time tutoring Maureen and making peace with the other wives, to ensure that once she was gone the Richards family would soldier forward in harmony and righteousness until the promised day, on the others side of the vil, when they would be joined together again.” To me, I hear a lot of irony regarding what Bev really thinks, because if she really soldiers towards harmony and righteousness, that’s going to be a pretty big change.
BU: That’s true. The quote that I love—I just heard her say it—I don’t know if you know it—Mary Karr, she wrote The Liars’ Club—is that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person. Once the numbers start going up more—
JS: The possible connections go up exponentially.
BU: It goes exponential. So the chances are, that they will soldier forward in harmony and righteousness, believe me, are just about nil. They just added, not only a wife, but two new kids to the family. Good luck to them.
JS: Wastrels, who’re happy to get away—
BU: They’ll just take Rusty’s place. So yeah, there’s The Liars’ Club.
JS: I get the impression from the passages that I’ve seen from Beverley’s consciousness, she probably believes that.
BU: Oh yeah, she does. You have to.
JS: It explains some of her obsessive ordering of the household too.
BU: In the background that she comes from, she believes that if you obey all the rules and in righteousness, having rules and regulations keep anarchy at bay. That’s what she strives for throughout the book. She’s right in some ways. I suppose what I’m saying is that you can try all you want.
JS: Too much order is as stifling as anarchy, and that might be what’s driving Rusty. He’s unhappy.
BU: And it probably drives the other wives, who don’t agree with her approach. So that’s why they’re all fighting with her, because they don’t go that far. Those wives are born and raised in the principle. She’s a newcomer to it. If you’re a convert to something, you get fired up.
JS: The convert’s zeal. There’s a section about it. I can’t remember off the top of my head, but the conflicts between Beverley and the others is a conflict between the first and the others. It’s hard because there has to be a disciplinarian, but no one likes the disciplinarian.
JS: Yet there has to be one.
BU: I can tell you that in my family I’m the disciplinarian, and nobody likes me. My wife’s like, the super safe place to go. I’m like Nurse Ratchet or someone like that. It’s the oldest story in the world, I guess. In this case, it’s the wife.
JS: Because of Golden’s job, and because of how he rotates, in The Lonely Polygamist it would have to be the wife, or the wives, because he’s not there enough.
BU: That’s the truth about anything. Pierre and I were talking to this—a guy who’s gone all the time, working his ass off—he’s not going to be around to have much influence at all, positive or negative. Without influence there’s no power. So the only power he has is to pick his clothes every day. But I’ve seen it in these families.
JS: The power and the attention, because there’s so many children—
BU: Exactly. Because the kids know where the power is. You know what? I don’t think it would be that different if it was a family of four kids, and their father is gone all the time. The mother’s the one who has the influence. He’s not there, he doesn’t develop what he needs to. The entire story and situation—everything that’s true of a family of four or five people is just amplified four or five times. To me that’s interesting for the sake of seeing how far we can take this. For me, it makes things clearer. It helps you see what I’d call a regular family a little bit more clearly when you exaggerate more.
JS: Even regular families seem to be steadily declining, if we mean by that a mom and dad and 2.1 kids and a golden retriever. It’s a smaller proportion—
BU: Right. What I love—let me back up. I’ve put it this way before: what fascinates me about polygamy is that you can look at it as this alternative thing. Like gay marriage. Or you can look at it like this chauvinistic, terribly old-fashioned, ridiculous, unfair way to live. So you want to look at it.
JS: It probably depends in part on where you grow up, and whether you can really make an independent decision about where you want to live. It seems like not everyone grows up as a polygamist gets that.
BU: Most of the polygamist communities are closed, so it makes it hard for people to make their own choices. That’s not true of all polygamist families. But again, the same could be said of many cultures and subcultures in this country and around the world.
JS: You have ideological conformity.
BU: Exactly. Within family, within a neighborhood.