Hollandaise in La-La land

Melanie McGrath is unamused by an American presidential farce; My search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket Quartet, pounds 7

Melanie McGrath
Friday 02 August 1996 23:02

Warren Harding, 29th President of the United States, was the Golden Retriever of American politics - amiable if a little thick, loyal if credulous, his only solid achievement being a talent for go-fetching pork bellies on behalf of crooked aides whilst simultaneously wagging his tail and feigning innocence.

Thankfully, Robert Plunket's book is not about Harding, but it is about his type - a cast of vainglorious nobodies bumbling along in a bumper- to-bumper Los Angeles of bullet-pocked restaurants and smog-filled skies. For My Search for Warren Harding is a farce set among LaLa Land's more desperate losers.

Plunket's narrator, Elliot Wiener, a po-faced, Morris-dancing New Yorker, is anxious to reap academic stardom by uncovering President Harding's love letters to his sometime mistress, Rebekah Kinney, a now- dilapidated crone living in a pile in the hills beneath the Hollywood sign.

"Wiener" is an American term of affection for the male genitalia, and Plunket's narrator is indeed something of a dickhead. This becomes evident when, in an attempt to inveigle himself into the family, he rents the pool house in the grounds of the Kinney home and begins a series of increasingly desperate attempts to steal the Harding letters, first by seducing Rebekah's vast granddaughter, Jonica, and then by trying to buy off her semi-estranged, white-trash husband, Vernon. Since this is a farce, it all comes to an absurd and pointless end during which Weiner gets what's coming to him but not, of course, what he came for.

Plunket is at his best when he's being playfully camp, which isn't often enough. His inclusion of recipes "Blender Hollandaise - one of John Kennedy's favourites'', is a masterly touch; assured, inspired, witty. But occasionally he tries too hard. Of his friend Eve's housekeeper, Wiener remarks: "there were rumours that she had survived Auschwitz. And not as an inmate.'' And whilst all history is, in my opinion, fit for comedy, the more painful the event, the tougher the task. Plunket doesn't quite pull it off.

My Search For Warren Harding made something of a splash in the States and it does contain a number of brilliantly wry comic scenes, such as Wiener's helpful hints on the discreet disposal of porn mags: chop them into tiny pieces, mix the pieces in with bits of the TV Guide and distribute handfuls of the mix evenly throughout the city's public wastebins, and his inevitable humiliation when an LAPD porn squad discovers a pristine copy of Bound and Gagged in the pool-house rubbish bin.

Though Plunket tells his tale with great pace, only the final third of the book really works. Many of his jokes are straight from the 'Allo 'Allo school of comedy, featuring Mexican housekeepers who can't speak proper English and hilariously smoggy days in LA. That's about as funny as remarking that English Northerners eat mushy peas.

But Plunket's biggest problem is that his anti-hero, Wiener, whilst being a prize prat, is never quite lusciously horrible enough or even, come to that, efficiently horrible enough to sustain our interest in him, which leaves us at the mercy of Plunket's patchy jokes and the jaunty unravelling of his farce.

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