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.