In 1888, a bishop and one-time newspaper editor spoke to a gathering of young Mormons about literature. “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” he told them. It was more prediction than prophecy, but Orson F. Whitney eventually became an apostle of the church, and his words, published in a short-lived Mormon monthly, survived; I first heard them in my teens, quoted by a Sunday school teacher. More than a century after his remarks, bookish Mormons still occasionally get to thinking about those latter-day Miltons and Shakespeares and ask, “Well, where are they?”
Those who ask the question recognize that a great Mormon writer might change how the religion is perceived in the wider culture. If that writer drew on his own background in his work—a Mormon Philip Roth, say, rather than a Mormon Shakespeare—he could help humanize a group of people still regarded by many as peculiar. Non-Mormon writers have depicted Mormon characters, but it’s difficult for them to get the details right—which is why Wallace Stegner thought the “Great Mormon Novel” would be written by someone who grew up in the church, left, then made it “part way” back to the fold. What’s more, the very fact of a great Mormon writer might make plain to those who doubt it that one can be intellectually serious and Mormon at the same time.
At least one observer has suggested that the absence of a great Mormon novel stems from the impossibility of doing just that. Jerry Earl Johnston, a columnist for the Deseret News—after relating Stegner’s thoughts about the Great Mormon Novel—declared that Mormons are too uncomfortable with ambiguity and imperfection to write great fiction. His column generated harsh refutations, but his point was not exactly new. A more thorough study of Mormons and intellectual pursuits, published in 2003 in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (full disclosure: I am currently that magazine’s poetry editor), suggested that a “willingness to ask questions” was “threatening” to many Mormons and wondered how many were willing to “look beyond” their “conventional selves.” Even if it is possible to pursue serious literary ambitions as a Mormon, it may be unusually difficult (as Brian Evenson can attest).
The writer Brady Udall suggested as much in a 2001 interview that appeared shortly after his first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, was published. “We have always been threatened,” he said, “by anything that doesn’t fit squarely within our system of belief. Good art will always be complex, contradictory, and will resist easy judgment—all things that would make any good Mormon nervous.” Udall also said that he didn’t want to be thought of as a “Mormon author,” but Edgar Mint certainly doesn’t avoid the religion: Its narrator is a half-Apache kid who is adopted by a Mormon couple. (One critic has interpreted the book as a specifically Mormon allegory about good and evil, with an “anthropomorphic view of God” hailing from Mormon theology.) And in that same interview, Udall said he thought it was “high time somebody out there, if not me, wrote about Mormons in a real and honest way.”
And so a new, epic-length novel by Udall—who descends from one of the country’s eminent Mormon families; two Udalls are in the U.S. Senate right now, both relatives of the novelist—with the title The Lonely Polygamist holds considerable intrigue. The ambition of the book is obvious: One early review has already hailed the book as “a serious contender for Great American Novel status.” And clearly the subject matter lends itself to an exploration of Mormonism. Yes, mainstream Mormons have been monogamous for over a century. (Polygamy was prohibited two years after Whitney foresaw those Miltons and Shakespeares—though it persisted among some church leaders for another 15 years.) Yet “plural marriage” has a unique place in the church’s history and in its relationship with the wider world. As the soapy HBO drama Big Love has shown, a story that begins with a polygamous family can still explore the Mormon mainstream: The series has dramatized temple worship, disciplinary councils, and the sacrament prayers, among other aspects of Mormon life.
The Lonely Polygamist—which Udall began writing several years before Big Love premiered—has some notable parallels with the HBO show. Like Big Love’s Bill Henrickson, Udall’s protagonist, Golden Richards, belongs to a small group of mostly assimilated Mormon fundamentalists, not to one of the fringe survivalist groups made famous by Warren Jeffs. Both Henrickson and Richards are pragmatic when it comes to their professional lives: The former goes into the casino business, while the latter, who’s in construction, builds a brothel. And both deal with impotence, albeit in very different ways.
Perhaps unexpectedly, though, it’s the television show, and not the 550-page novel, that explores at greater length the social context that surrounds its central family. Big Love has depicted a wide spectrum of religionists, from cultists in a compound to the most mainstream Utah Mormons. Udall, by contrast, zeroes in on Golden and his clan, focusing on a few critical weeks in the 1970s. We see their world through three principal characters: Golden; Trish, the youngest of his four wives; and Rusty, the rowdiest of his 28 children. Trish married into the family after a series of heartbreaks and hardships and, despite her mother’s warnings, she’s begun to reconsider. Eleven-year-old Rusty, meanwhile, is struggling, like Trish, with the lack of personal attention that seems inevitable in such a large family. He’s become a social outcast at school—the other kids know he’s a “plyg”—and his pubescent sexual longings are becoming increasingly awkward: He’s got a crush on Trish. Golden, meanwhile, tentatively begins a (mostly chaste) affair.
Udall has a knack for depicting a child’s imagination, and Rusty, with his half-cracked fantasies and childish profanity, is easily the most engaging of the book’s three central characters. Faye, one of his sisters and principle antagonists, is equally compelling: A loner, she spends hours in a “prayer cave”—made of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals in various states of dismemberment—where she has “intricate conversations with Jesus and the Holy Ghost and other invisible beings,” including Joseph Smith, Abraham Lincoln, Old Yeller, and two siblings-to-be who died in childbirth. The clash of Faye’s piety with Rusty’s first experiments in sacrilege is amusing, but also conveys the power of religious faith in the lives of these children. Faye has a personal and intimate (and perhaps mildly polytheistic) idea of God entirely in keeping with a Mormon upbringing. The joy Rusty takes in blasphemy derives from the strength of the taboo he’s breaking. With these characters, Udall expertly handles the free indirect style so that the reader sees the world through their eyes.
The power of faith is less palpable in the novel’s main character. Golden is a sort of accidental polygamist, introduced to the practice late in life by his absentee father. He thinks rarely in the novel about God, and far more about how to keep everyone in his life happy (and, even more often, about how to avoid the unhappy ones). Udall portrays Golden as an everyman drifting through life—a polygamous Frank Bascombe. But this is unconvincing: Surely marrying four women and fathering 28 children requires some real ambition—rooted, one imagines, in the beliefs that demand such things. Those beliefs would no doubt seem strange to most readers and would perhaps make Golden a difficult character to understand. But one of the promises of a great, character-driven novel is just that: One comes to share the experiences of very different people. Udall is capable, I think, of rendering such characters; Rusty and Faye each have an individuality that the novel’s most important character lacks.
Which brings me back to the attraction of a great Mormon novel (forget the definite article; as with the broader American variety, there can be more than one). To humanize a group of people that is little understood, a novel can’t skimp on what makes those people strange to others—not only the superficial matters, but the interior ones: beliefs and ways of thinking unfamiliar to its readers. By experiencing, through fiction, those differences, readers might begin to see past them.