Let's get a few things out of the way:
Yes, author Brady Udall comes from polygamist stock. His great-great-grandfather was put in prison for it, and his great-great-grandmother (the second wife) was forced underground because of it.
Yes, Udall was raised Mormon, one of nine children. He doesn't drink or smoke, but he doesn't follow the religion anymore, either.
Such family history could make for squeamish reading, but Udall's new book, The Lonely Polygamist (W.W. Norton & Co., $26.95), is getting raves. Publishers Weekly called it "a serious contender for Great American Novel status." It's masterfully crafted, sprawling, heartfelt and human, and it shows that a man with four wives and 28 kids can have the same troubles as anyone — just less quiet time to sort them all out.
"I don't understand why people practice polygamy or why God wants them to do it," Udall said. "But I do understand how they manage it.
"It's a difficult way to live, and they see it as a badge of honor, of God testing them," Udall said. "As long as they are not hurting or abusing children, I have a hard time looking down on them."
Udall made a big splash with 2001's The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, about a boy whose head is run over by a mail truck and whose life continues on an offbeat, ultimately hopeful path.
It's much the same for protagonist and patriarch Golden Richards, a Utah contractor. He isn't entirely sure how his life has become spread over two houses, one apartment and a trailer outside a cathouse. But he soldiers on, tending to darkened and hungry hearts, construction jobs that test his moral fortitude, endless school functions, and the classic midlife question: Is this all there is?
No, there's more. Golden has an affair.
Other characters emerge from the cacophony: There's an anthropomorphized atomic bomb (the novel is set in the '70s), the wives, and one of the "polyg" kids, Rusty, 11, with a mind of his own.
"I love kids, and I don't think their lives are often well depicted in literature," said Udall, 40, a father of four. "They are given little credit or way too much." With Rusty, "I wanted to make a kid an unlikable character. There are these kids who are just a handful, a pain in the butt."
Udall lives with his family in Idaho, where he writes in a garage from midnight until 5 a.m., chewing bubble gum and eating M&Ms. He also teaches writing at Boise State University. He started writing The Lonely Polygamist in 2002, and when he finally printed it out six years later, "it was a foot and a half tall and 14 pounds," he said. "I could barely carry it."
He admits that he took on a lot: not just polygamy, but atomic testing, the explosive hearts of four women who share a husband, the mind of an adolescent boy, and not just the abundance but the loss of children.
"As a writer, I care most about how people deal with loss," Udall said. "How do we deal with the fact that people disappear? That's the one thing that writers can do. If I can provide hours of comfort, and readers feel there is someone standing alongside them, well, that kind of thing is meaningful to me."