The tragicomic epic by author Brady Udall is about to get some big love

By Karen Valby
Updated May 06, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Brady Udall?s great-great-grandfather was a polygamist whose second wife was forced to go underground lest she get him tossed in jail. For years, the author contemplated writing a tale of present-day polygamy. In 1998, he published an article in Esquire about a guy named Bill, a working stiff juggling the needs of his multiple wives. And after his career took off with his picaresque novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint in 2001, Udall returned to the topic of modern polygamy, which he considered a gold mine: ?I couldn’t believe no one had touched it in fiction yet.?

So in 2003 Udall sold the idea to his publisher for $300,000, and bought the charming bungalow in Boise, Idaho, where he now sits at the dining-room table. His children are at school. His wife, Kate — he?s just got the one — is at work. Udall, one of nine kids, is used to tuning out distraction. As he talks about his new book, The Lonely Polygamist, he ignores the throb of the answering machine and the bleeping alarm of a watch.

Polygamist, in stores May 3, is a riveting emotional tornado of a novel. It follows a struggling Utah businessman whose family — four wives and 28 children — is in a constant state of civil war while he?s out of town secretly renovating a brothel and having an affair. An advance review in Publishers Weekly called the book ?a serious contender for Great American Novel status.?

Udall had written 200 pages of the novel when he got wind of a new HBO show, Big Love, about a polygamist named Bill and his wives and children. It sounded eerily like his old Esquire piece. ?It knocked the wind out of me,? says the author, 40. Lawyers got involved. Udall stopped writing. Eventually his agent warned him that a lawsuit would rob him of his sanity, and he backed off. (A rep for HBO says, ?We are not familiar with this claim and therefore it would be inappropriate to address.?) By early 2008, Udall became convinced that he was spinning gibberish, and had feverish days-long stretches without sleep: ?I got nutty. I felt immense pressure. Your life is staked on a book like this.?

Udall grew up in St. Johns, Ariz., a town of 3,500. His mother taught English at the high school; his father was the principal. (?Yeah, that sucked,? he laughs.) An amiable outcast, Udall had an imagination too messy and complex for his devout Mormon family to fathom. When asked if he believes in God, he shrugs good-naturedly and says, ?Some days.?

His mother, despite her love of books, can?t fully embrace her son’s work. ?She is proud of me, but she?s also embarrassed because I?m writing about things she thinks are inappropriate,? he says. ?The subject of polygamy especially.? But Udall has always been able to count on his grandmother?s support. When Playboy published one of his short stories, she bought an issue. ?She cut out the offending pages and put it on the coffee table so people could see what her grandson had done!? says Udall. ?She read Edgar Mint aloud to my grandfather. When she tells me she?s waiting for this new one, it freaks me out. I hope she?s not too upset by it.?

Family anxieties aside, Udall is excited about the buzz swirling around him. It helps make up for the ?pure misery? of the last few years. The day he mailed his manuscript off to his beloved editor, he learned she?d passed away. His wife?s father died. He got news of a sister?s terminal breast cancer. ?It?s terrible,? he says, with a chuckle at once boyish and drained. ?When you come from a big family, and that?s what my book is about, instead of feeling protected you feel exposed. There?s more potential for tragedy lurking around every corner.?