All the President’s Women

My Search for Warren Harding By Robert Plunket. New York: New Directions. 312 pages. $19.

The cover of My Search for Warren Harding

I LOVE NOVELS WITH INCREDIBLE review quotes on the cover, the kind that make you feel around for your wallet. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, for one, lured me with a doozy by William Kennedy from the New York Times Book Review, who called it “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the human race.” The best quotes follow you around as you read, subtly inflecting your experience, perhaps even shaping your final, favorable judgment. (“Hey—this is kind of like the Book of Genesis!”) 

Years ago, studying the paperback of Nicholson Baker’s debut, The Mezzanine, I was hypnotized by another Times rave: “Its 135 pages probably contain more insight into life as we live it than anything currently on the best-seller lists.” Fast-forward to earlier this year, when I stumbled on that original review from 1989. I snorted when I read how the line about the book’s way-we-live-now-ness actually ended: “with the possible exception of The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American.” I hadn’t heard of the witty reviewer, Robert Plunket, “author of the novel My Search for Warren Harding and a columnist for Sarasota magazine.” Soon after, by coincidence, I saw that New Directions was about to bring Plunket’s novel back in print. (Originally edited by Gordon Lish, it was published by Knopf in 1983.) 

The new edition comes with a fine introduction by novelist Danzy Senna, but it’s the other paratexts that deepen the mystery of this great lost comic novel and its creator, now seventy-eight years old. His updated author bio has a goofy charm. As a young man in New York, he had a “successful career as a waiter and office temp,” then relocated to Florida and became a gossip columnist. His list of outlets omits the Gray Lady (for which he’d written dozens of witty articles and reviews), instead citing This Week in Ft. Myers Beach, Healthy Aging, and Sandbars and Sonnets: The Southwest Florida Poetry Review. This self-effacing show of regional pride is also canny marketing, distinguishing his bibliography from the typical literary novelist’s rundown of organs. (As Plunket deadpanned in a 2015 interview, “I honed my skills in the nitty-gritty world of small-town supermarket handouts.”)

Things get even wackier in the book’s new preface. Plunket boasts of having patronized the same adult theater where Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) was arrested, and of doing a nightclub act in 1991 with his friend Katherine Harris, later Florida’s secretary of state during the fraught 2000 election. And on 9/11, he was sitting in a Sarasota schoolroom covering George W. Bush’s visit when the president heard about the second tower. Is this all a send-up, an attempt for “R.P.” (as he signs the preface) to Gump himself into recent history? A flashing of Republican sympathies, to scandalize the liberal literati? A way to show that his life outside the cultural mainstream has been rich with historic import?  

A cheeky tone keeps us guessing. Plunket compares his own late-life contentment to Dubya’s: “He has his Laura, I have my Kyle, a young man I met while he was participating in a Wet Jockey Shorts contest.” Kyle has lent a hand as Plunket, nearing eighty, is suffering from medical conditions, including two strokes and a heart attack. “He has proven so helpful that I have even given him a durable power of attorney,” Plunket writes happily, as he preps for a kayak trip on a secluded, gator-glutted stretch of the Everglades. (It’s Kyle’s idea.) In a few fizzy pages, the resurrected novelist has turned himself into an unreliable narrator so keen on bruiting his bona fides that he’s oblivious to his swain’s agenda. 

Robert Plunket, 2022. Hannah Phillips
Robert Plunket, 2022. Hannah Phillips

All this, before the novel proper has begun! Or do these curious, entertaining asides belong to the story at large? Concerned with the afterglow of fame and the thirst for recognition, mixing the invented and the real, they anticipate the novel to come. R.P.’s preface is followed by a note from “E.W.”—our prolix antihero, the renegade scholar Elliot Weiner—acknowledging a research grant from the Reed Foundation. To his dismay, the funders have distanced themselves from his work, which has admittedly generated “an array of sordid litigations.” The vibe echoes the foreword to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in which Charles Kinbote, the supremely deluded (or artistic) annotator, loses his composure by the third paragraph, griping, “There is a very large amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” 

Even the most forgiving reader will see why the foundation was wise to cut bait. Elliot has produced not so much a study of Warren Harding (1865–1923) but a madcap account of trying to get the scoop on the twenty-ninth president’s sex life by cozying up to his illegitimate granddaughter. His tale is full of deception, racial slurs, bad sex, assorted felonies. It’s also a feat of controlled chaos, getting much of its comic mileage out of set pieces that let Plunket merrily skewer bad art, from a feminist theater collective’s interactive play (All My Sisters Slept in Dirt: A Choral Poem) to a LACMA gala featuring the work of celebrities, where Elliot is numbed by 

the countless street scenes—Montmartre, Taxco, Bel-Aire—each with its own laws of perspective, the sunsets, sunrises, cloud formations and seascapes with colors not found in nature, the Grandma Moses rip-offs, the cross-eyed portraits (Mrs. Melvin Franks; Kim, Aged 5), the Balinese dancers and native markets laboriously copied from vacation snapshots, the random puddles of color labelled Abstract, the attempts at surrealism indistinguishable from the attempts at realism. . . . 

Plunket has said that one inspiration for My Search was his realization that the narrator of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers was closeted, and in updating the plot to 1980, he takes the conceit to the limit, giving his Ivy-educated antihero an interest in Morris dancing (“it involves a lot of swinging of clubs”), Ethel Merman, and women’s fashion. He impulsively invites a trailer-park hunk to move back to New York with him. On the flip side, he repeatedly calls a flamboyantly gay party guest “faggot” and makes sure to constantly mention his girlfriend, Pam. She might be on to something, telling him at one point, “Never in my life have I met somebody who is more out of touch with his feelings than you are.”

The book starts with Elliot scoping out Rebekah Kinney, an octogenarian recluse whom he suspects is the same R.K. who had a brief but productive affair with the married Harding in the early 1920s; she wrote a bestselling tell-all to support their love child after his sudden death. (Kinney is modeled on Nan Britton, over three decades younger than Harding, who penned The President’s Daughter.) Her granddaughter, the obese Jonica—“This woman eats bouillon raw!” Elliott later marvels—can’t understand why anyone would want to rent the residence’s filthy pool house, but convinces Kinney to open it up for the disingenuous Elliot. His furtive inspection of the trash can yields nothing save the fact that “somebody was a Q-tip freak.” After Jonica moves back in with her grandmother, Elliot holds his nose and launches a charm campaign. Her mention of a trunk of letters, which Rebekah peruses nightly, whets his appetite for inspection.

Elliot at times resembles a bitchier version of Ray Midge, the pedantic narrator of Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South (1979). Plunket is an avowed Portishead, and some passages have Dog’s breezy tone of witty condescension, as in his assessment of the “Kesselbaum technique” of poetry writing, taken up by Kinney and her group: “It consisted of stringing together a series of clichés and giving them a snappy, one-word title which would telegraph the metaphor she was planning to massacre. For instance: ‘Carousel,’ ‘Autumn,’ ‘Tidewater.’ And my favorite ‘Freeway.’” At other times, Elliot’s sociological takes anticipate those of Jack Gladney from Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). On the run at one point, Elliot ponders getting a job as a night clerk. “Why a night clerk? I wondered. . . . Simple, I realized with a shudder. Whenever anybody gets arrested after a manhunt for some bizarre crime, it always said in the paper, ‘Schmertz had been working as a night clerk at a local motel.’ Either that or a hospital orderly.”

(Side note: there’s a buried joke that didn’t hit me till a second read. Elliot has a sublimated crush on Pam’s brother, Ira, whom he playfully mocks as “Irate Berger.” This means his girlfriend is the Pam Berger to his Weiner. It’s so stupid. It’s so great.)

Plunket could be a missing link between the Portis/DeLillo brand of humor and that of Baker (like The Mezzanine, My Search has some footnotes—mostly recipes) or perhaps Mark Leyner (in his fondness for boldface names). But the book’s queer subtext sets it apart, and the theme elevates Plunket’s second novel, the hyperfarcical Love Junkie (1992), again set in the early ’80s. Texas-born Mimi Smithers has returned to the States with her husband after his stint in Iran working for Union Carbide. Settling in Westchester, the naive and superficial Mimi strives to climb New York’s socio-cultural ladder. She finds fulfillment working for an arts organization in the city, run by the charismatic Tom Potts, who teaches her the finer things, like the proper pronunciation of “Rizzoli’s.” Even after utterances like “I could never have a serious relationship with someone who doesn’t like opera,” it takes Mimi forever to realize her crush object is gay, but once she does, she gets enmeshed in the city’s queer subculture. (An unwitting trip to a fetish club is a masterclass in cringe.) Her attention shifts from Tom to an entrepreneurial Adonis of a porn star named Joe, né Joel Sabinak, whose stunning looks compel her to sketch him. (The drawings are included.) She happily manages his various sidelines: sending his used underwear to a cross section of paying fans across the country, making flyers for his The Sensual World of Joe, his “Verbal Abuse Tape,” and almost single-handedly funding his artsy adult film Circle of Confusion, for which she is tapped as a last-minute stand-in. (“I am a lesbian, I kept repeating to myself. I am a lesbian. I am a lesbian.”)

Love Junkie is eager to please and gleefully tasteless. Recounting a bombing at a Tehran department store, Mimi is proud that she maintained her shopaholism, embassy advisories be damned: “It was a political act.” In a recent Nation critique of White Noise, with its airborne toxic event, Siddhartha Deb wondered why “there is not a single reference to Bhopal or Union Carbide in the footnotes of the [recent] Library of America edition.” To the contrary, Plunket prepares us for the 1984 Bhopal disaster—in which thousands died after a chemical explosion at a Union Carbide factory—then merely uses it as a convenient plot point. Likewise, the killing wave of AIDS makes a startling appearance by the end, only for shallow Mimi to note that, although a friend’s memorial was “ineffably sad,” it was “without a doubt the most elegant social event I’ve ever attended.” Kirkus dismissed the book as “thin camp,” but Mimi’s dogged rejection of tragedy still has the ability to shock. 

Though Jay McInerney gave Love Junkie a glowing Times review (headlined “Dominatrix from Bronxville”), Plunket appeared to move on from fiction. Down in Florida, he filed his gossip columns and other pieces for the local press, which means we newly minted Plunket fans can find a wealth of smartly stylish pieces online, including a superb feature last year on the unsolved 1969 heist of religious paintings done by the once-popular Ben Stahl, a Sarasota friend. The larger-than-life depiction of Stahl has the scope and energy of a Plunket novel, with everyone from Ursula Andress to Bob Ross making cameos, the way Jack Lemmon and Candice Bergen pop up at the art show in My Search. “Though he’s been dead for 36 years, he still seems to exist in some sort of limbo, a piece of a mystery that has yet to be solved,” Plunket writes tenderly of his friend. “Will it ever? I hope so. I’d love for Ben to see one more moment in the spotlight.”

It reminded me of a scene early in My Search for Warren Harding, in which Elliot dismisses the judgment of his sole rival in Hardingiana, a Yale scholar who disdains Rebekah Kinney as a “historical intruder,” someone whose existence complicates the smooth narrative of the past. Plunket feels like a literary-historical intruder as well. Those of us just beginning to read funny fiction seriously in the ’80s might have missed him the first time around. What does it mean that, forty years on, he stands as tall as the greats? 

Ed Park’s latest novel, Same Bed Different Dreams, will be published by Random House in November.