Some time ago I was introduced, by two of my funniest friends, to Winner’s Dinners, a web archive of British film director Michael Winner’s restaurant column published in the Sunday Times between 1993 and 2012. Recounting meals taken everywhere from the Hyatt Carlton Tower to Sir Bernard Ashley (husband to Laura)’s Llangoed Hall, usually with signature expletives (“ghastly beyond belief”; “total, unimagined disaster”), Winner’s Dinners became the source of some of the funniest pieces of writing I’d read in a while. That was, until I came upon My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket, a novel whose main character, Eliot Wiener, seemed to have been plucked right out of the camp bourgeois world of Winner’s nightmarish English dining rooms.
The novel follows Wiener, a middling academic researching Warren Harding, the twenty-ninth president of the United States and a man infamous for his many extramarital affairs. In its opening act we follow the protagonist, decamped in Los Angeles, as he attempts to hunt down Harding’s now-octogenarian mistress, Rebecca Kinney (modeled on the ex-president’s real-life lover, Nan Britton). Aided by his friend, an older Los Angeles matron, Eve Biersdorf, our hero and his accomplice formulate a plan to get access to the former mistress: Wiener will ask to rent the pool house in the old lady’s crumbling Hollywood Spanish mansion. In aid of his mission, Wiener (who is, unbeknownst to himself, a closeted homosexual) begins to date Kinney’s granddaughter Jonica, a chronically overweight compulsive eater he openly disdains.
My Search for Warren Harding is an oddly digressive novel; this in part explains its cult status. Peppered with footnotes, recipes, and lifestyle and housekeeping tips that, as much as Wiener’s narration, round out his fictional persona, critics have compared Plunket’s book to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a novel written as an extended commentary on a poem. In a rare 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Plunket admits that his greatest inspiration was a Henry James novella, The Aspern Papers, which follows an academic who, with the aid of an older Venice matron, attempts to gain access to the letters of fictional Romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern from his aged former lover. To do so, he presents himself as her lodger and seduces her guileless spinster niece, Miss Tita. “It was always one of [my] favorites, but most important, it spoke to me in a special way,” Plunket said. “I couldn’t figure out why until one day it hit me. The guy’s gay! Of course! Now the book made perfect sense. His relationships with all the women characters were those of a gay man. I don’t think Henry James realized what he had done, or how well he had done it, which made my discovery even more exciting.”
Plunket doesn’t consider himself a comedic writer, though he does confess to having a “comic technique”:
A slightly manic, deeply flawed first person narrator.
Much attention paid to rhythm . . .
What I call a ‘punch line’ every other paragraph (or so).
It is more of a sixth sense: an intimate understanding of his characters’ psyches and knowing what makes a situation tick. Wiener is petty and cruel, a bumbling opportunist who imagines himself to be calculated and slick. He prays on Jonica’s neediness; he refers to the novel’s only openly gay character as “the faggot”; he spends a long passage debating the relative merits of Mexicans versus Puerto Ricans (he prefers Mexicans). The characters he feels affinity toward are either shrewd like himself or (oddly) working-class men.
But every time Wiener delivers one of his vicious cuts, Plunket steps in to humiliate his hero even more, drawing out comedy from Wiener’s lack of self-awareness. In one scene, Wiener, having inadvertently contributed to the death of Mrs Kinney while trying to wrench Harding’s love letters from her hands, flees to Palm Springs to dodge the authorities, only to return to Los Angeles a week later and discover his absence went largely unnoticed. Elsewhere, he recounts his porn disposal practices:
What on earth had been going on in my mind? My God, the care, the preparation, the skill with which I usually discard pornography — the people who design nuclear power plants could get pointers from me. Backup system after backup system. Nothing left to chance. What I do is this: with a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors, I cut the stuff into one-inch squares, mixing in something totally innocuous, like People magazine. Then I dump this mixture into a shopping bag and set out, after dark, pausing at every litter basket I pass and tossing in a handful. I keep going until the shopping bag is empty, and then I take a bus home. Once I made it all the way to Grand Central.
Of a similar generation to writers like Gary Indiana and Lynne Tillman, Plunket is close to invisible online apart from his work. After spending time in New York, he worked on the fringes of LA’s independent film scene, but he has lived for most of his life in Sarasota, Florida, where he wrote a gossip column covering, among other things, Pee-wee Herman’s sex scandal, and where he reported from George W. Bush’s educational tour of Florida, moments after 9/11. (“Kenny G. played on the loudspeaker. The wait went on and on. The children kept having to go to the bathroom, which required security clearance.”) He also published his novels, as well as new writing under various pseudonyms and personas, on his website robertplunket.com (since taken offline).
“What I do is obsessive and not necessarily healthy,” he told the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I have turned my life into one of my character’s lives.” At a time when literary criticism’s main occupation seems to be who gets to write what and how to delineate between the author and the narrator, Plunket’s “method writing” is a refreshing alternative.
Plunket’s confessional tone, his absurdity, and his lack of boundary between himself and his characters is a forebear too to the kind of humor that flourishes on social media, group chats, and podcasts. But My Search for Warren Harding was written during the Reagan presidency, and its contemporary counterparts are rarely translated onto the page.
Most of Plunket’s reviewers, as well as the writer himself, agree that My Search for Warren Harding could never have been published today. The implication is that it would not pass the hands of a sensitivity reader; I think it could not be published because nothing this funny is being written today, in the novel form at least. In the Los Angeles Review, Plunket talks about how, after several rejections, My Search for Warren Harding finally found a publisher when Ann Beattie showed it to Gordon Lish. “‘I don’t know why I’m publishing this. I never publish books like this. It’s not literature,’” Plunket recalls Lish saying. “Then he’d light another cigarette and say, ‘But it’s harder to do than literature.’”