Who Was Robert Plunket?


On Books

President Harding with pet dog Laddie being photographed in front of the White House. National Photo Co., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I might not have read a single truly funny novel that year if my friend hadn’t stopped by my Los Angeles porch one afternoon carrying an out-of-print copy of Robert Plunket’s comic masterpiece, My Search for Warren Harding.

We were in the worst of days—the depths of the pre-vaccine pandemic—and our world was on fire, both literally and figuratively. The copy of the novel that my friend, the writer Victoria Patterson, handed over to me looked the way we all felt in those days: yellowing, battered, dusty from too long in storage. Tory bellowed through the muffling fabric of her N95 mask that it was one of her favorite novels—and really fucking funny.

I needed funny. I opened the book a few weeks later—and despite my allergic reaction to the mold in the edition, kept reading for the next 256 pages. When I was done, I sat in a kind of silent, focused delight. I held in my hands one of the best, and most invigorating books I’d read in years, and certainly the funniest—and yet, how was it out of print? Why had I never heard of this novel before now? (Later I learned Tory had actually written an excellent piece about it for Tin House magazine in 2015.) Why had it disappeared so fully from the literary landscape? And what did that say about this literary landscape if it could bury a book like this? Most intriguingly: Who was Robert Plunket?

The jacket bio for Plunket’s second (and, so far, last) novel, Love Junkie, published in 1992 and also out of print, reads:

Robert Plunket’s first novel, My Search for Warren Harding, immediately established him as one of America’s most promising novelists. Unfortunately, the promise soon faded, and he now lives in a trailer in Sarasota, Florida, where he ekes out an existence as a gossip columnist, covering everything from gala charity balls to KKK meetings. He has also served on the boards of Sarasota AIDS Support and the Humane Society of Sarasota County, and is currently running for election to the Mosquito Control Board, District 6.

So much for literary fame. There are few interviews with Plunket online. In one of the only I could find—published by the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015—he explains the inspiration for the novel to writer Michael Leone.

“Obviously, it’s based on The Aspern Papers,” Plunket explains.

The Aspern Papers, the celebrated novella published by Henry James in 1888, is set in nineteenth-century Venice, where an unnamed narrator seduces a young woman in order to gain access to her spinster aunt’s trove of letters by her dead poet-lover.

Plunket goes on to say, “It was always one of my 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.”

In Plunket’s retelling of The Aspern Papers, he sets his novel in late-seventies Los Angeles. The author himself was just emerging from that era when he wrote the book. It came out in 1983: the same year the national craze for Cabbage Patch dolls reached its pinnacle. The same year Vanessa Williams was crowned, then promptly decrowned, the first Black Miss America. The same year Ronald Reagan decreed Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and Michael Jackson moonwalked for the first time on national television. The same year Reverend Jerry Falwell described AIDS as “the gay plague.”

Plunket’s book, in other words, emerged out of a culture of contradictions—a world of both hedging progress and conservative backlash, an America of trash and spectacle. Which is maybe why the novel, forty years later, feels so startlingly contemporary.


Sensitivity readers, be warned: the protagonist of this novel, Elliot Weiner, is cruel, racist, fat-phobic, homophobic, and deeply, deeply petty. In the novel’s opening, we find Weiner standing on a scenic lookout in Los Angeles with his friend Eve Biersdorf staring through binoculars at a large, dilapidated home in the distance. Whatever mischief he’s up to, he says, “it was Mrs. Biersdorf’s—Eve’s—idea.” Weiner, we soon learn, is an East Coast snob and middling historian who has come from New York to Los Angeles on a fellowship. He holds himself in high regard, but the more he brags about his academic career—“Suffice it to say that I teach at both Mercy College and the New School, and I feel that speaks for itself”—the more we sense desperation: “Some unfortunate comments have gotten back to me about my ‘qualifications.’” Elliot Weiner is hoping to retrieve some lost love letters between President Harding, traditionally ranked as the worst of presidents, and his secret mistress, Rebekah Kinney, the owner of the house in the view of their binoculars. Weiner soon learns that Kinney is alive, but now a cranky octogenarian who wears rhinestone sunglasses and spends her days in her crumbling mansion shouting at her Mexican servant from a squeaky wheelchair. Weiner believes the old woman still possesses the love letters and other Harding-related papers, and is hiding her treasure somewhere in her crumbling mansion. And he will do anything to get his mitts on those letters, even “rape and pillage,” as he’s hoping a discovery like this can propel him to academic stardom.

As the novel unfolds, Weiner’s madcap effort to obtain these papers propels the absurd, picaresque plot. He rents out Kinney’s dilapidated pool house and cozies up to her granddaughter, a naive young woman named Jonica whose ample flesh disgusts him. But he’s willing to grit his teeth and seduce her if it means getting to her grandmother’s historical smut.

Weiner is cruel about Jonica from the beginning, describing her as “a fat girl … wearing baggy green paratrooper pants … and a lot of plastic bracelets that added to the general din … She talked like a real California girl, no inflection, lots of r’s.” Yes, Weiner is unabashedly cruel about innocent Jonica. He despises all she represents—fatness, the West Coast, gullibility—and yet he begins to court the poor woman, to prey on her neediness. Soon they are romantically and sexually involved—and he’s that much closer to his prize and becoming a renowned historian.

The bare bones of a plot is so often just a skeleton for a novelist to hang up their observations. The more streamlined and beautifully elegant a plot—and in the case of My Search for Warren Harding, the plot simply boils down to a single character pursuing a single, tantalizing object—the more tangents the author can take. And the tangents in this book are everything. They let us see Plunket—with his lacerating wit—send up the entire culture of Los Angeles at the turn of the eighties.

But with every parody of the culture around him, Weiner is the biggest joke of all. One of Weiner and Jonica’s early dates is to an avant-garde feminist performance—an audience-participation play called All My Sisters Slept in Dirt—A Choral Poem, performed at the LA Women’s Theatre. “Then, all of a sudden, people started streaming in like they’d just got off a bus. 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’s and said, ‘I’ll take those.’” The satire in this scene is perfect, and we are aware, too, that Weiner, who has a sweating problem and is wearing a silk shirt, has strapped cut-up Pampers diapers to his underarms to absorb the sweat. Whenever the author is vicious about the people around him, he humiliates Weiner a little more. After the date, Weiner expresses his repulsion toward Jonica:

When I got back, she was still lying on the rug, looking up at me.

What can I say? You can guess what happened next.

As for her body, I won’t go into details but will say this: she had a lot of dimples. Everywhere.

And yet the reader knows Weiner is the one with the soggy Pampers taped under his arms.

In fact, Elliot Weiner is depicted as the most deliciously awful of New York City neurotic bachelors. For one, he puts his garbage in the refrigerator so it won’t stink and attract roaches, while the girlfriend he’s left back in New York, Pam, is the consummate beard. “When we first met, we discovered we had a lot in common, including the fact that our brothers had attended the same basketball camp although at different times.” They were clearly meant to be. Pam even indulges his true passion—which is for “Morris dancing … a type of old English folk dancing, always performed by men. It can get pretty wild, since it involves a lot of swinging of clubs.”

What’s wonderful about Plunket’s first-person narrator is how far beneath the surface his dishonesty lies. His attraction to men is hinted at beautifully, hilariously, but always cagily, never consummated. He has lied so much—so profoundly—and for so long that his attraction leaks out in twisted bromances with straight, working-class men. He leers at them, ingratiates himself toward them, describes their biceps and the length of their shorts, but his desire reveals itself sideways. His defenses have been shored behind this original lie, as he looks down on everyone and on Los Angeles itself. In the gaps between his observations, the silences, the truth about Weiner’s true self emerges. Behind the bluster and arrogance he’s a closeted gay misanthrope, blind to his own desires. While Weiner is not a likable character, the story doesn’t ask you to admire or sympathize with him. Yes, he’s a superficial, arrogant, closeted homophobe who refers to the one gay man he encounters as “the faggot.” He goes into long tirades, including an elaborate racist theory about the difference between Puerto Ricans in New York and Mexicans in LA (he prefers the Mexicans). Fat jokes abound. But it’s not empathy we are here for.

In his essay “Gay Sincerity is Scary,” Paul McAdory calls out the fiction of “gay sincerity”—that contemporary, humanistic, and, above all, earnest gay novel that revels in its own poignancy and tenderness. McAdory cringes in the face of such mawkish, heartfelt quasi-transgressive sentimentality, and asks: “Do we not grow tired, after so many rounds of this sentimental journey to the weepy, fantastical core of human experience? Might we not celebrate instead a more horizontal outlay of sincerity, mania, irony, horror, meanness, humor, etc. … In lieu of crying, a writer might try laughing, cackling, madly monologuing to the pool of cum on one’s tummy, coolly observing it, overanalyzing it for effect, playing in it, rejoicing in it …”

My Search for Warren Harding might be the insincere gay novel McAdory has been hoping for. Weiner is a low-key monster. He projects his self-loathing outward onto fat women and openly gay men. His views are problematic. His whole way of judging other people is reductive and snobby and scathing and unkind. Of course all books and works of art are in some ways a symptom of their times, and this one has the blind spots and cringeworthy moments that remind us of its 1983 pub date. But for those of us who are greedy for models of literary fiction that are actually funny, hungry for satire that stings, craving work that pricks and prods us awake—fiction that doesn’t bore us—the risk of not reading these rare works outweighs the risk of being offended.

And in the end, I don’t think you can read Plunket’s work straight-faced. Too often we still insist on reading the fiction of so-called “marginalized” authors as thinly veiled autobiography, or worse yet, a tool of self-help. We somehow still believe the queer novelist or the writer of color must share the moral underpinnings and opinions of the characters they create on the page—and when the character says or does wrong, we convict the author. But so much of the real pleasure of fiction lies in the nonliteral, meaning told slant—in double-talk and mischief and irony, all embedded in the elaborate lie.

First-person narrators are often best as liars. They are most interesting when they lie to the world and they lie to us and they especially lie to themselves. Weiner is no exception. And there is a particular pleasure in this novel of witnessing the cracks where Weiner’s self-delusion runs up against the reality of his true self.

Weiner learns nothing from his journey. He keeps judging, keeps lying, keeps grasping, keeps being petty. Part of what’s liberating about writing awful characters, grotesque characters who do grotesque things and learn nothing from their journey, particularly for those of us who are writing from the margins, is that dark satirical comedy resists the autobiographical gaze. In writing a perceptive satire—writing monstrous characters on downward spirals that never reverse course —we resist the pressure to remediate and uplift. We reclaim our right as artists to simply fuck shit up and walk away, laughing.

The first rule of improv is “say yes.” And indeed part of the perfection of My Search for Warren Harding, in part, is in how committed it remains to its premise and the persona of Elliot Weiner. Plunket says yes to the problematic character and he continually says yes to the absurd circumstances he puts him in. The story keeps saying yes to its own twisted logic and doesn’t ever shy away from the ugliness or limitations of Weiner’s vantage point.

In the real world we’re told we should empathize and see things from other people’s points of view. In a novel, the opposite is often true: the point of view is by necessity chauvinistic. It works most powerfully when limited by its own body and times and perspective.

My Search for Warren Harding feels like freedom because of its limitations. In reading a character so blind and blindsided, so prejudiced and self-absorbed, we are freed from our own sanctity, our own arrogance. The main character is a closeted white gay man with a narcissist’s insecure vapid center. In reading Plunket, we are freed from our own delusion that we are not all Weiner. That we are not all—somehow, someway—in the closet.

His novel anticipated and influenced much of what the culture would begin to find funny (and maybe what some of us are still waiting for the world to find funny). In our contemporary humble-bragging world of filtered selfies, virtue signaling, and good optics, we find increasing release, and comic relief, in fictional characters we are not asked to admire or envy—in characters so awful or amoral or vapid that the joke is on them.

The novel was a critical success upon its publication in the eighties. Ann Beattie and Frank Conroy wrote glowing reviews. Plunket, however, didn’t publish again for many years and instead dabbled in acting. His IMDb page says he is “best remembered as the timid gay guy” in Martin Scorsese’s dark comedy thriller, After Hours. He went on to get bit parts in other movies, then published a second novel, Love Junkie, in 1992; the rights were optioned by Madonna. Plunket moved to Florida and did not publish another book. Even still, My Search for Warren Harding continued to quietly leave its mark—passed around through some kind of comedic-literary whisper network, where it was adored by a small, select group of readers that included Amy Sedaris and Larry David.

Rumor has it that Larry David was such a fan of the novel he kept copies of it available in the Seinfeld writing room and told his writers to imitate the tone. It’s clear reading this novel that he even lifted details from the book, such as the absurd way that Seinfeld’s Elaine dances—clearly based on the novel’s depiction of how Weiner’s girlfriend Pam dances:

She is one of those people who ‘abandon’ themselves to the beat, clapping their hands over their head and emitting little yelps. To make matters worse, she studied modern dance in college and thus considers herself a Movement Expert. The thing she does—I can only describe them as Martha Graham routines. Her arms fly out into space, she makes sudden turns, then she half-squats, her head flung back in ecstasy.

After its publication, this novel did what so many great novels do: it shone briefly on the new fiction scene, long enough to be pilfered and imitated, long enough to be absorbed into the culture it would influence. And then, like so much source material, it disappeared, like the author himself, who retreated to Sarasota, Florida, where he has lived for thirty-seven years and involved himself in gossip and real estate writing, rhinestone and quilt collecting, and raising succulents.

“The literary marketplace is fickle, unforgiving, and often unfair, likely to reward the second-rate,” writes Victoria Patterson in her essay on Plunket. “In counteraction to this depressing reality, there’s also a beautiful and hopeful phenomenon, whereby a deserving book survives.”

When Patterson handed me Plunket’s half-forgotten novel that day on my porch, California burning and the world in decay, the out-of-print book had already been handed to her years before, pressed upon her by another writer. And I read it and pressed it upon a brilliant friend at New Directions and so here we have it, a redemption song.


In that one rare interview in the LARB, Plunket comes off like I’d expect: unpretentious, unfiltered, quick-witted, honest, and completely bullshit-free. He is deeply literary, loves literature perhaps too much to sully it with careerism. He talks trash about the books that are supposed to be funny but aren’t: “P. G. Wodehouse means nothing to me. I can’t get past the first page.” He throws shade at Jonathan Franzen: “I find the characters so stuck in middle-class angst that we are supposed to take seriously …” He is also transparent about the rules he tries to follow in order to write a truly funny novel. As he says, the funny novel must include a “slightly manic, deeply flawed first-person narrator”; it must “pay attention to rhythm—make the words dance,” and should include a “punch line every other paragraph.”

Plunket bemoans in the interview that “people don’t think 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.”

This turns out to be true. The cosmic joke of Plunket’s delightful novel is still as fresh today as it was forty years ago. It is a gift to us—devoted readers of Los Angeles literature, of comedy, of queer literature, and of the literature of self-loathing—that it is finally being reissued now. You hold in your hands the paramount example of a comic novel. To all the greedy readers and writers, enjoy the ride.


From the introduction to My Search for Warren Hardingto be reissued from New Directions in June. 

Danzy Senna is the author of several books, including the award-winning novel Caucasia.

Robert Plunket was born in Greenville, Texas, in 1945 but raised in Havana and Mexico City. He is the author of the novel Love Junkie and has written for Healthy Aging, This Week in Ft. Myers Beach, and Sandbars and Sonnets: The Southwest Florida Poetry Review. He is currently retired and lives in a trailer park in Englewood, Florida, where he enjoys collecting old quilts and raising succulents from scratch.