Unhappy families are different, quoth Leo Tolstoy—even when they’re headed by the same patriarch, the situation from which Udall’s (The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, 2001, etc.) latest unfolds.
“There’s hard things we have to do in this life,” says a wizened desert rat to an existentially confused Golden Richards, the protagonist. “We bite our lip and do ’em. And we pray to God to help us along the way.” Golden is in need of such guiding words. At 48, he calls three houses home, each of them stuffed full of children. Things aren’t going well out in the world that he’s unsuccessfully tried to keep at bay; his construction business is mired in recession, and he’s working in Nevada, far away from the comforts of home(s). To complicate matters, Golden, though already blessed or burdened with three wives, has taken up with another woman, a fringe effect of which is that now he has a fondness for mescal. Golden’s life occasions a series of hard choices and often-rueful meditations, and Udall smartly observes how each plays out. His novel opens with a tumultuous welter of children who, though tucked away in a remote corner of Utah, have access to all the media and know, aptly, what a zombie is. As Golden’s saga progresses, he learns about the mysteries of such things as condoms (as a friend meaningfully says, “so you don’t go fucking yourself out of a spot at the dinner table”) and the endless difficulties and intrigues of family politics, with all their plots against the patriarchal throne. Udall layers on real history with the tragedy of atomic testing in the Southwestern deserts of old, and imagined tragedy with some of the unexpected losses Golden must endure. In the end, Udall’s story has some of the whimsy of John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War but all the complexity of a Tolstoyan or even Faulknerian production—and one of the most satisfying closing lines in modern literature, too.
Fans of the HBO series Big Love will be pleased to see an alternate take on the multi-household problem, and lovers of good writing will find this a pleasure, period.