MY SEARCH FOR WARREN HARDING by Robert Plunket

MY SEARCH FOR WARREN HARDING

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Elliot Wiener, the smug narrator of this sporadically amusing, faintly unpleasant first novel, is a young historian specializing in Pres. Warren Harding, desperate for an academic scoop; and he believes he has found it when he learns that Harding's supposed mistress, Rebekah Kinney, is living in Los Angeles--in a ""Classic Hollywood Spanish"" manse. So Elliot talks his way into the house, meets the old lady herself (a crone in a wheelchair), meets Rebekah's fat granddaughter Jonica. . . and is soon agreeing to rent the estate's pool house for $800 a month. Thus ensconced, hungry for dirt, Elliot tries eavesdropping, with farcical results. He has an unedifying chat with the resident gardener, crude Osvaldo. He decides to make friends with Jonica--inviting her to a disastrous dinner party. (One of the guests, referred to only as ""the faggot,"" calls Jonica ""Miss Goodyear."") But then Elliot and Jonica do become chums: they go to a play (""Just eight ugly girls whining about rejection"")--and soon wind up, to Elliot's semi-disgust, in bed, after which much of the space here is given over to insult material about gross Jonica. (""My God, I could do about seven hours on her eating habits alone. . . . Sex with Jonica was a trial. . . I'd pretend to be delighted and try to keep from blowing lunch. . . ."") By cultivating the foul Jonica, however, Elliot does learn that there's a trunkful of Harding letters in the main house; so the novel's second half involves some slapsticky efforts to gain possession of the trunk--efforts which end up in predictable irony when Jonica gets the wrong idea about Elliot's relationship with her cowboyish ex-husband Vernon. With such a thin, contrived plot, of course, Plunket must work hard to stretch out the proceedings--which he does, with more strain than charm: there are excerpts from Rebekah's memoirs, other Harding history; Elliot indulges in digressions about party-giving, pornography, his one-time zoo job; he dispenses limply bitchy aphorisms (""There's something about a prone position that brings out the Joan Kennedy in everyone""); there are satiric sketches of a few California phenomena. But though Elliot's arch narration offers a campy laugh or two, the central joke of petty academic ruthlessness (done better elsewhere) never comes off--and what remains is a mild antic mish-mash that never turns its ugly elements (which are considerable) into authentic black comedy.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf