Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Search for Warren Harding, by Robert Plunket

Robert Plunket's 1983 satire on Los Angeles culture and society is flawed but hilarious nonetheless.

Twenty years ago I read a brilliant comic novel by Robert Plunket called Love Junkie. It was about a homemaker and wannabe socialite who falls in love with a porn star. Pop star Madonna even bought the film rights to it. Alas, the book never made it into film. Plunket’s other novel, My Search for Warren Harding, was published some nine years previous to Love Junkie, in 1983. I never got around to reading the first novel. For some reason Robert Plunket entered my thoughts recently, so I decided to track down My Search for Warren Harding. (It’s no longer in print, so ebay came to the rescue.)

The story describes loafing academic Eliot Weiner and his discovery that American President  Warren Harding’s mistress, Rebekah Kinney, is still alive and kicking (sort of, she’s confined to a wheelchair, quickly running out of money and in her mid eighties). It’s perhaps worth noting here that Warren Harding, America’s 29th president, is pretty much considered its worst. For details on Harding’s extramarital affairs see Wikipedia.

Rebekah Kinney is living in Los Angeles in a large house. Eliot Weiner has heard that Kinney has a stash of love letters from Warren Harding. To try and get his hands on this cache, Weiner inveigles his way into Kinney’s house. Sort of. She has a pool and pool house that is attached to it. He agrees to rent it out at an exorbitant price. Eliot meets Kinney’s obese granddaughter, Jonica. The plot soon involves her in trying to get access to the rumoured letters. That’s simplifying matters, as Plunket’s story unfolds in dizzying complexity. It has an unending, almost surreal feel, like something Dostoyevsky would have dreamt up in one of his  farcical novels, like The Idiot or The Devils. You wait for situations to be resolved, then find them open out onto more nightmarish situations. It’s like a comic pandora’s box.

The novel is really a spoof on Los Angeles culture and society. More aptly, it’s a savaging. Plunket said that he wasn’t so much a writer as a person with an axe to grind. Boy is that the truth. Every aspect of the LA scene, its people, architecture, fame culture, urban landscape and economy come in for a drubbing. There is so much detail that as you read you wonder how much of it is describing real events that Plunket witnessed. The scenes on the boat, where Jonica has to be rescued by the coastguard, a day of unending horrors, are a tour de force. Plunket is undoubtedly a peerless comic writer and it’s a great tragedy that he hasn’t written a novel since 1992’s Love Junkie.

Having said that, My Search for Warren Harding does have its faults. There are parts of the plot that don’t seem credible. Some of those passages that strain credulity beg for some sort of aside or explanatory notes, but Plunket just races ahead. It seemed to me that his comic style - fast paced, keenly observed and acerbic - raced ahead of the plot. For example, when Eliot has an affair with Jonica, there’s no internal monologue of guilt or acknowledgement that he’s cheated on his long term girlfriend, Pam. It’s sometimes hard to take Eliot at face value as heterosexual. Reading between the lines, Eliot seems to fancy the thuggish Vernon, husband of Jonica. This is alluded to a little bit in the plot, but is never worked out properly. Very little of the sexual dynamics in the book seem credible.

These are faults that get in the way of the book perhaps being considered a mini classic. There’s a lot of incoherence you have to overlook. If Plunket could have made the people and their relationships more realistic, the novel would stand up better.

But if you can (and you should) overlook this, then My Search for Warren Harding is definitely worth a read. Plunket is a totally natural comic writer. His sentences crack along. Despite the novel’s irritating faults, I thought Warren Harding a great read.

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