The slender line of plot upon which this first novel hangs has to do with Elliot Weiner, a historian in search of fame and fortune who ventures from New York to Southern California in hopes of tracking down the erotic memorabilia of Warren Gamaliel Harding. Track them down he certainly does, in the ramshackle mansion of Rebekah Kinney, an octogenarian who had a fling for a while as one of Harding's several mistresses, bore his illegitimate daughter shortly after his death, then wrote kiss-and-tell memoir that brought her some measure of notoreity and prosperity.
That is the plot, or the bare essence of it, but it is not likely to matter one whit to anyone who is fortunate enough to chance upon "My Search for Warren Harding," a wholly nonsensical and entirely hilarious piece of work. What really matters about this little book is the nonstop sequence of gags, commentaries and descriptions served up by Weiner, who is its narrator and a memorable fellow indeed: graduate of Harvard, Columbia PhD, erstwhile director of development for the Bronz Zoo, "family ne'er-do-well" from "the Pittsburgh haut bourgeois," genteel bigot, fuss-budget, schemer, snob and all-round dirty young man. A characteristic reflection follows his too-casual disposal of a magazine called Bound and Gagged:
"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."
This incompetent disposal operation occurs during one of Weiner's numerous efforts to gain access to Rebekah Kinney's mysterious trunk, in which are packed "black leather diaries, old photo albums, piles of postcards tied with ribbons, a jewel box, letters, jammed in all over the place" -- original Harding material that must be worth at least a million bucks. To oil his way into the trunk he has leased the pool house on Kinney's grounds as his temporary residence and has entered into a romance with her spectacularly obese granddaughter, Jonica, whose "mind was unsullied by an original thought" and whose estranged husband "could have her declared legally dead on the basis of zero brain activity." This is intended to be merely a brief respite from his continuing romance in New York with Pam, who "works at the Ford Foundation, where she oversees programs having to do with senior citizens, women's issues and child abuse," but soon enough he is having second thoughts:
"Pam has a lot of friends, but they are all in the business end of the 'arts' or in one of the 'helping professions' -- i.e., social work -- and to be brutally honest, they are a pretty dreary bunch of people. Overeducated, bitter about their take-home pay, trapped in Manhattan without cars, deprived of the profit motive in their dull, but harried, jobs, too timid to take charge of their lives but too intelligent to be satisfied with the little they have -- I should know, I was one of them, until I decided it was now or never and went back to school. I didn't want to wake up one morning, forty-five years old and still working for a zoo, for Christ's sake. My idea of a good time was no longer a wine and cheese party on 110th Street."
Although it's not entirely clear precisely what his idea of a good time now is, he certainly has ample adventures. He gives a dinner party, even though "I knew only seven people in Southern California, including infants and illegal aliens." He does the L.A. social scene with Eve, "a tall woman in her mid-fifties who moved with a languid grace that I later came to suspect was the result of tranquilizer addiction." He is in the audience for a feminist dramatic presentation: "Women mostly, with severe haircuts and aviator glasses. It hit me what an important moment in feminist fashion it was when Gloria Steinem dropped by her optician and said, 'I'll take those.'"
This does not tell us a great deal about Warren Gamaliel Harding, to be sure, but who on earth could possibly care? Robert Plunket is a genuinely inspired comic writer, and "My Search for Warren Harding" shows the results of that inspiration on just about every page; he has been blessed with that rarest of gifts, what Noel Coward called "a talent to amuse." CAPTION: Illustration, Book jacket illustration by Joel Graphics; Picture, Plunket; (c) 1983, by Thomas Victor