THERE ARE probably a handful — at best — of American comic novels that deserve to be considered classics. Catch-22 is one, as is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, maybe Portnoy’s Complaint or Slaughterhouse-Five. Of course, opinions vary. Humor remains a personal, finicky thing. Books other people find funny (the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, for example) don’t make me crack a smile, yet I find Moby-Dick hysterical in spots. Maybe it’s just me.
And then there is My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket. What? And, who? Such was my reaction when the novel was first referred to me by the writer Robert Clark Young. I purchased a used copy, tested the waters, and was immediately engulfed in waves of diaphragm-clenching hysteria. I’ve recommended it to everyone I know and even my mother finds it howlingly funny.
Published in 1983, My Search for Warren Harding concerns the exploits of a preening New York scholar-cum-sleaze named Elliot Weiner. Weiner is a specialist in Warren Harding, whom most historians consider one of the worst American presidents ever. He was also a notorious philanderer. One of his lovers, Nan Britton, went on to write a best-selling memoir in the 1920s about her long-hidden affair with the president. Full of bawdy details, the book became a publishing sensation. Apparently, intensely heated love letters had been exchanged between Harding and Britton, and our scholar, Elliot Weiner, is determined to lay his hands on them and thus secure his own academic fame.
Plunket fictionalizes Harding’s lover as Rebekah Kinney, an eighty-something cripple who lives with her daughter Jonica in a run-down Hollywood Hills mansion. To get close to her — and those letters — Weiner poses as a struggling student, moves into their pool house, and courts the obese and love-hungry single mother, Jonica.
It takes about a page and half to realize that Weiner is not only an unreliable narrator, but also total scum. He is scurrilous and cruel and belittles everybody he meets. He is also an obviously closeted homosexual who hasn’t the slightest clue — the book is written in first person — how ridiculous he is, which is, of course the great joy of the novel. The biggest joy in his life — besides Harding-ania — is Morris dancing, which he talks about without the slightest irony. Do yourself a favor and google it.
In many ways, My Search for Warren Harding is a classic picaresque novel in the tradition of Cervantes and Smollett. (Does anybody read the latter anymore?) Our crumb-bum hero sets himself an objective and pursues it mercilessly, lawlessly. Yet the novel is more than his comic adventure; Plunket lampoons the entire smog-riddled world of California dreamers, loonies, and layabouts; the sole reason we find any substance in Weiner is that he’s one step ahead — barely — of the flakes around him.
I have impressed it upon everybody I know. Nobody had heard of Plunket; everybody loved the book. His second novel, Love Junkie, published in 1992, is also very funny, but after that, Plunket’s pen came to a standstill. Why?
Recently, my pal Victoria Patterson read My Search for Warren Harding, and luckily for all of us, she did a little digging. She wrote a “Lost & Found” essay in Tin House about the novel and writer, and to complement her essay I decided to track down Mr. Plunket himself and interview him for LARB.
Full disclosure: years ago, after having read the book, I corresponded with the great author, who lives in Sarasota, Florida, but I had since lost touch with him. I wasn’t even sure if — sorry, Bob — he was still alive.
After a few phone calls to Sarasota Magazine, for which Plunket writes a real estate blog, I sniffed him out. He is still writing and very active in the Sarasota scene. And during the last week of December, he was in New York and in talks about a screenplay he was writing. This interview took place on the sun-shaded deck of Plunket’s motor yacht in Sarasota Bay — dolphins leaping about — over a choice array of cocktails. Reader, I jest: this interview was conducted via email and the result is a literary conversation that is as loony and fascinating as Plunket’s books.
MICHAEL LEONE: Can you tell us how you started writing? I may be wrong, but you don’t seem to have gone the traditional route, like those writers who have studied in MFA programs, for example.
ROBERT PLUNKET: Actually, I did study creative writing on a graduate level for one semester at Columbia with Hortense Calisher. It was a horrible experience. She had a little pet in the class who could do no wrong. She was going to get him an agent, she was going to do this for him, she was going to do that for him. He always got to read his stories first and we were forced to admire them, or else we were idiots. It was disgusting. And you should have seen him — he looked like an albino mouse.
Then one day my grandmother called. She was quite old and sick by this time, and she said to me, “Have you met your cousin XXX XXX? He’s studying at Columbia, too. He’s so smart and all his teachers love him.” Well, my cousin was Hortense Calisher’s pet! The albino mouse! I withdrew the very next day.
I googled him to find out what happened to him and while he cannot be described as “famous,” he is at least somewhat well-known. But between you and me — what a dreary life he has had. Teaching college and writing those dreadful-sounding novels. Imagine — writing a novel about Thatcherism. The very idea makes my skin crawl. What did Hortense C. ever see in him? He never ended up in Madonna’s bedroom.
Did you ever teach creative writing or work in that capacity?
Never have I taught, mostly because I’ve never been asked to, but thank God. I am so not that kind of writer. I honed my skills in the nitty-gritty world of small town supermarket handouts. I’m like an “outsider artist,” one of those night watchmen who spend 50 years building a miniature village out of popsicle sticks in their backyard. What I do is obsessive and not necessarily healthy. As you may have noticed with my new website, it’s all starting to blur. I have turned my life into one of my character’s lives.
How did you come up for the premise of MSFWH?
Obviously, it’s based on The Aspern Papers. It was always one of favorites, but most important, it spoke to me in a special way. 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. Now, not an openly gay man or even a consciously gay man. But a man who was just not heterosexual at his core. 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.
And in retrospect, I think I really did unlock some key to The Aspern Papers that hadn’t been unlocked before.
And since I was also obsessed with Warren Harding and his soap opera of a life, I starting thinking, what if the guy from The Aspern Papers is trying to track down Warren Harding’s love letters … Hmmm … It all fell into place.
What I found particularly great about the novel was how you captured the zaniness of LA culture in the 1970s perfectly, down to the smallest detail (for instance, Jonica polyurethaning a dead cactus). Did you spend time there?
Yes. I went to yet another graduate school there — UCLA, where I studied business. I loved Los Angeles, everything about it. I couldn’t take business school seriously, never showed up for class and cheated on the exams. (And still I made the honor society.) My real life was spent on the fringes of the movie business and working in experimental theater. That’s where the atmosphere of MSFWH comes from.
Rebekah Kinney is obviously based on Nan Britton, one of Harding’s lovers. Why did you fictionalize some elements of the story and not others?
I had to. She and her family were still alive, and there was some concern on my part about getting sued. So I changed things around just enough. It was fun. I had to come up with an alternative version of Nan Britton. I also became an expert on the laws regarding libel and invasion of privacy.
The character Elliot Weiner is extremely unlikable in a lot of ways: he’s selfish, racist, judgmental, silly, and at times, cruel, and yet the reader is constantly rooting for him to succeed in his endeavor. There’s been a lot of press recently in book culture media — isn’t that an oxymoron? — about readers demanding “likable” characters. For instance, Claire Messud went on quite a compelling rant in Publishers Weekly ridiculing the notion of “likable” characters. Just because we might not want to hang with Medea or Captain Ahab are they therefore not compelling characters to read about? Do you think it would be possible to publish this book today with such an inherently disagreeable and un-PC protagonist?
I totally agree that today it would be hard to get it published. It was hard then, for this very reason. I’m always astonished that people get uncomfortable with books that don’t have nice, honorable characters. Haven’t they ever read Lolita? I have lost friends over this issue — they want my books to be “nicer.” There are nice people and there are people who are not so nice. And we’re not supposed to read stories about them?
MSFWH regularly pops up on various “best” lists. Recently, the Guardian listed it as one of “a thousand books everyone must read.” Do you see yourself deliberately working in the comic tradition of the novel?
No, absolutely not, I don’t think I work in that tradition. P. G. Wodehouse means nothing to me. I can’t get past the second page. I accept the label but in my own deluded mind, I am convinced I am doing exactly what the masters have always done, only I use a comic technique. Like Katherine Anne Porter, I am filled with rage.
Can you explain what you mean by comic technique?
I don’t know the technical definition but what it means to me are certain things you have to do if a book is to come across as “funny.” These are my rules. There are many kinds of “funny,” but this is how I do mine:
A slightly manic, deeply flawed first person narrator.
Much attention paid to rhythm. I try to make the words “dance.” I actually picture them dancing right across the page. It looks very “waltz-y” although some time it breaks out into a foxtrot.
What I call a “punch line” every other paragraph (or so). This is something so unexpected that it provokes a subtle reaction in the brain, a sort of jolt of surprise. The physical result of this jolt is laughter. The punch line can be an image, a line of dialogue, an unexpected word choice. Sometimes the dumbest and simplest things work the best.
Every paragraph has to do three things: further the plot (by presenting the next piece of information necessary for the story to work), deepen the characters, and be fun to read. (By the way, if you’re looking for a way to speed up your writing, go through it on the final draft and cut the last line of every paragraph that can stand it. There’s something about the last line of a paragraph that so often turns into a period. So get rid of it, even if it means losing something good. Instead of stopping, the mind flows directly into the next paragraph. Speed in comedy is everything.)
Can you give us an example of one of your punch lines?
I may be paraphrasing a little here, so I don’t have to go through the entire book to find the sentence, but … When Elliot describes the décor of Claude Kentner’s cabin cruiser: “Everything was plaid. The drapes, the seat cushions, the carpeting, the owner’s pants.” Or when Barrie complains that her mother is pressuring her to invite her over for dinner, Jonica says, “Serve fish. She hates that.” A dumb and simple one, from Love Junkie, about a smoky restaurant: “There were two sections, smoking and chain smoking.”
Comic fiction seems not to be deemed as worthy as more “serious” literary fiction — I’m thinking of most Oprah books, for example, and most books selected for literary prizes — at least in the US. Why do you think this is?
Smarter people than me have tried to figure this out. It’s the bane of every serious comedian. People don’t think that anything “delightful” can be serious. Yet the delightful works of art are exactly the ones that last, while the “profundity” of any age dates quickly. Just look at Jonathan Franzen.
I think Franzen has some great comic moments in his books, though I wouldn’t call him a comic writer. What about him specifically don’t you like?
I don’t see the humor, although I do admit the part in The Corrections where the senile father is pursued by turds was certainly on the right track. But in general, I find the characters so stuck in middle-class angst that we are supposed to take seriously, that I keep thinking, no, no, he’s got it wrong. He’s misinterpreting the way people really are. BTW, I had dinner with him not too long ago and found him, in person, to be humorless and incurious. I kept telling him all these interesting things about myself and he never asked a follow-up question or showed any curiosity about me. And I’m so interesting …
Okay; so Franzen is out. Who are some of the writers who inspired and continue to inspire you?
Early Henry James, certainly. Particularly Washington Square, which I know by heart. Early Evelyn Waugh. Patrick Dennis, particularly Little Me — for my money, the best book ever written. John O’Hara, or at least Appointment in Samarra. Anything by Barbara Pym. Or Nabokov. Or John D. MacDonald. Or Charles Portis.
And a special word for E. F. Benson and the Lucia books. Yes, I know they are “comic novels” but they are in a league by themselves when it comes to understanding the pettiness and self-delusion of human nature. If I ever get stuck, I pick one up and read a couple of chapters. That usually solves the problem.
Let’s talk about the publishing biz for a bit. Can you describe what your experience was like publishing your first two books?
Ann Beattie, who at the time was a friend of a friend, showed MSFWH to the famous Gordon Lish, and after everybody else had turned it down, he decided to publish it, much to the horror of Robert Gottlieb, who ran the company. Gordon was always saying the most awful things to me. Like “I don’t know why I’m publishing this. I never publish books like this. It’s not literature.” Then he’d light another cigarette and say, “But it’s harder to do than literature.” To me, that’s always been the central dilemma of my career.
Love Junkie, the second book, was much easier, although several “friends” I’d acquired through the success of MSFWH turned and ran when they read it.
What do you think of the current state of American fiction?
I don’t really feel qualified to comment. People who write books are in a terrible bind at the moment. The audience is vanishing. Few people care. Books don’t contribute much to the national “buzz.” Back in the old days I’d give new friends a copy of one of my books, and they would actually read it. Nowadays I would never do that. People don’t want to be handed a book and told to read it. I never even bring up the fact that I write novels. It’s like saying you’re a shepherd.
Why did you move to Sarasota?
I moved here because of John D. MacDonald. I found the picture he painted of Florida very seductive and cool and mysterious. So when I was evicted from my loft in SoHo, I came here. The best part was that I actually met John D. and we became friends. He was a great man and a great writer.
There are four entries for you on Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for appearing in four films, one of which is After Hours. I have not met many writers who also acted in movies. How did this happen?
Whenever one of my more successful friends in the movie business is making a film, I beg for a part and have been surprisingly successful. I still get residual checks. (The latest was for nineteen cents.) My favorite role was that of the prom photographer in Drive Me Crazy with Melissa Joan Hart and Stephen Collins. (Yes, that Stephen Collins.) (And let me state for the record — he never exposed himself to me.)
All too often my best work is in the can, or rather the cutting room floor. I had a wonderful part in White Palace with Susan Sarandon and James Spader, but Mr. Spader took a strange dislike to me and accused me of standing too close to him during our big scene. (I guess he was afraid to appear with a real star.)
Google research has provided me with many glimpses of your personality: a rhinestone collection, your involvement in a pug parade. What are your hobbies and interests, and how do they inform your writing?
I shudder to think what impression you got from Google research, but as far as hobbies and interests go, I do collect rhinestone jewelry and have just opened a retail outlet at Retro Rosie’s in Bradenton. My favorite style is from the 1940s, the kind of stuff Joan Crawford wore in Humoresque.
Actually, any sort of jewelry involving shiny stones fascinates me, and my travels these days are mostly to museums here and in Europe to see jewelry exhibits and shows.
I also love vernacular architecture, and my idea of heaven is driving around a town I don’t know very well and looking at the houses. I own a bunch myself, which I purchased as collectibles. I rent them out but still lose a lot of money doing this.
And guess who my new best friend is? Clifford Irving. He lives here part of the year and we hang out. He’s always been one of my heroes. I have a long-term plan — talk him into doing one last hoax, just the two of us.
On a more personal level, I am involved in a number of long-term relationships. There’s Tom, the guy I live with. Then there’s Jose, who drives for FedEx. I’m putting his son through college. Then there’s Butch, a biker and Vietnam vet. He has recently brought his girlfriend into the relationship, which has certainly been eye-opening. I soon learned the problem heterosexuals have to deal with in bed — those long strands of hair that keep getting in your mouth.
It’s been quite some time since your last novel Love Junkie appeared. Are you working on anything now?
First of all, please see my website robertplunket.com where you can get electronic versions of my books and read various other things I’ve written. Check out the blog written by my intern Fritzi Borgwart. She’s going places, that girl.
In the not-too-distant future there will be another novel on the website: The Divine Art of Living. It’s illustrated and rather complicated technically, so putting it in electronic form is very time consuming. I really need to take a couple of months off and whip it into shape.
And along with Amy Robinson (she produced, most recently, Julie & Julia), I’m finishing a screenplay about two old friends — she’s an actress who can’t get work and he runs a community theater — who find an enormous diamond ring in a Kia they rent.
Why haven’t you published another book? Is it okay to ask?
My third novel was never published, and in retrospect I can sort of see why. It was in the physical sense a coffee table book. It has sumptuous photos and art, all in color, and a lot of them. It had architectural renderings that I designed and had drawings made. You would not guess it was a novel until you really started delving into it.
And of course I demanded total control of the way it looked, etc.
I think people in the publishing business were afraid that it just wouldn’t work, given the premium cost and the general weirdness. Of course, I’m sure that many of them also thought it sucked.
But I’m figuring out a way to put it up on the website, this time disguised as a style blog.
I guess I’ll conclude with a question that probably betrays my own naïveté: Why do you think MSFWH is not more famous? Is it politics, the general dumbing down of America, what?
I think it has to do with the fact that it only appeals to certain people. Luckily these people are often “cool,” and I have a little list of people who have told me it was one of their favorite books that is quite impressive. Have I told you about Larry David? He’s the guy who created Seinfeld and it was his favorite book — he even asked me to write for Seinfeld — and I’m flabbergasted by the stuff he’s stolen from it. Elaine’s dancing, for instance, is a direct steal from Pam’s dancing.
The book has a very brutal sense of humor and it portrays human nature in a way that is all too true but not very ennobling. I remember when I was a little kid, I saw the world differently from most other people. They thought one thing was happening, while I was convinced something else entirely was going on. Like when my mother’s friend Rusty Richmond was dying of cancer. Everybody saw her as suffering valiantly, refusing to give up, determined to live life to the fullest. I saw her as an old drunk who was milking this thing for all the attention she could get.
Believe me, Aristotle was right — art has to be uplifting. I personally think MSFWH is uplifting, if only for the exhilarating delight you get from the sheer fun of it. But the lessons you learn are not about the triumphs of human nature, but rather how self-deluded people are.
So that’s why it’s not more famous. That, and the vast conspiracy against me.