Avid readers will know that I have a wee bit of an obsession with Warren G. Harding. I mean, how can one not, right? (Right?)
Every now and then I see reference to a novel called My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket. I was intrigued enough to put it on my Amazon wishlist at some point, but never motivated enough to buy it. Then a few weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked for funny book recommendations. Someone responded that Assassination Vacation and My Search for Warren Harding were the funniest books they'd ever read.
Now, avid readers will also know that I have a wee bit of an obsession with Assassination Vacation, so having someone equate the two was the shove I needed....almost. I didn't buy it right away, but a few days later, I was stuck at the Atlanta airport for five hours and had run out of things to do, so I went ahead and purchased the Kindle version.
The novel is written from the point of view of Elliot, a graduate student in the 1980s who is trying to get his hands on love letters from Harding that are in the possession of his now-elderly mistress, living in Hollywood. He hatches a plan to rent the woman's pool house and uses various schemes to try to obtain the letters. The premise itself is fairly amusing, even if some of the plot points are rather unrealistic.
Most of the characters are fictitious, although there are some cameo appearances from real people, historical and contemporary ("contemporary" in this case meaning "early 1980s," when the book was written).
The former mistress, Rebekah Kinney, is largely a characterization of Nan Britton, Harding's actual young lover with whom we now know he had a child. In this novel, Kinney (like Britton) had been a young woman from Harding's hometown, they had had an affair and a child, and she had written a tell-all book (called The Price of Love, as opposed to the actual The President's Daughter). But Rebekah Kinney led a more glamorous life than Nan Britton, hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities and dabbling in acting herself. As this book opens, she now lives a largely solitary life in a rundown Hollywood mansion.
The existence of a trove of love letters is more reminiscent of Carrie Phillips, Harding's other well-known mistress. Her letters were the basis of the nonfiction book The Harding Affair, and were recently released by the Library of Congress. Nan Britton, on the other hand, held onto only a couple correspondences from Harding, none of which were intimate in nature, which is part of the reason she had a hard time establishing her story as truth.
Okay, so, grad student plots to obtain Warren G. Harding's love letters from a Nan Britton-Carrie Phillips mashup. So far, so good. The first couple chapters were amusing. Not laugh-out-loud funny, or even chuckle-worthy, but interesting enough.
Things start to take a turn when the main character meets Kinney's Mexican housekeeper. Queue the negative ethnic stereotypes. It was cringey, but I reminded myself this was written a long time ago ("a long time ago" meaning "in the early 1980s," which really isn't that long ago at all, but I tried to keep things in "historical" perspective.)
Then comes the chapter where the Elliot's friend brings a gay guy to dinner. Throughout the entire chapter (and the rest of the book), this man is referred to as "the faggot."
Remember when Donald Trump made fun of the disabled journalist and we all thought it couldn't possibly get any worse, and then it continued to? That's basically what this book was like.
The rest of the book basically turns into one giant fat joke about Rebekah Kinney's 20-something granddaughter, Jonica. An example: "Now the inevitable question: how fat was she? I would guess that she tipped the scales at around two hundred pounds. She was fat. She was what you mean by a fat person. She was so fat you wondered how she found pants in that size." Okay, so that paints a picture, and if that had been it, maybe it would have been bearable. But that wasn't it.
The comments like that go on throughout the book. Without exaggeration, probably a good 30% of the book is just a discussion of this character's weight. Also, some major plot points hinge on it. And I guess it's supposed to be funny, but it isn't. I don't just say that because it's insensitive or politically incorrect. I mean that even setting that aside, it just isn't funny.
Besides repeatedly explaining in great detail Jonica's appearance, Elliot also verbally, physically, and emotionally abuses her in an attempt to get his hands on the letters.
Oh, and keep in mind, interspersed with the fat jokes are plenty more comments about Mexicans, Blacks, Jews, and "Orientals," plus additional references to "the faggot."
At one point I decided I just couldn't take it anymore. The book was so despicable---it sounded like something that would have been written by an alt-right internet troll sitting in his mom's basement, if such people knew anything about Warren G. Harding---I just couldn't go on. But I'm also kind of anal about finishing books I start, and I felt a duty to review it here, which I couldn't do if I didn't read the whole thing. Plus I figured I had to be almost done. I checked: 42%. Ugh.
I forged on, though.
Our protagonist doesn't get any less deplorable...in fact, he only grows moreso. Another problem is that, with the possible exception of Jonica, all the characters are unlikable, and even Jonica is sympathetic only because everyone else is so awful to her, not because of any particular redeeming qualities of her own.
Then I got to the end of the book, which I will admit was spectacular. I don't want to spoil things too much in case, for some reason, you decide to read it, but it basically involves a heavy dose of schadenfreude. It felt so good. That's when I realized that we were, indeed, supposed to hate Elliot. (At least I sincerely hope that was the point.)
Now, there were some funny parts. The overall absurdity is pretty amusing. There are some good lines, like when Jonica (who doesn't know her grandfather was a president) says he was "somehow mixed up in oil." The footnotes contain recipes. The acknowledgements become funny once you've reached a certain part of the book and realize who some people are. And like I said, the ending is immensely satisfying in the sense that you might give an evil laugh.
Yet the marvelous ending really isn't enough to justify how painful the rest of the book is. Even if the novel's intent is to make fun of academia, or to serve as a commentary on L.A. culture, or to be an ironic statement about terrible people, or...whatever else, it's not worth wading through the unpleasant, depressing horror needed to get to the ultimate satisfaction. In this case, the end wasn't enough to justify the means.
I'll just stick with Assassination Vacation.