Books: Scholar-Gypsy

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by Robert Plunket

Knopf; 277 pages; $13.95

Novels with cute titles should come with a tag marked caveat emptor. The purchases, when opened, are likely to be as interesting and substantial as unfolded cocktail napkins. This year's notable exception is My Search for Warren Harding; the title represents truth in advertising. Elliot Weiner, an ambitious academic historian from New York City, thinks he has located a former mistress of President Harding, who died in office in 1923. The suspect lives in Los Angeles, happily undetected by the handful of Harding specialists who are Weiner's competitors. If the old lady has kept letters and other memorabilia from her once illustrious lover, and if Weiner can get his mitts on them, his future in the groves of academe will be palmy indeed.

Almost nothing, of course, works out the way the scholar-gypsy had planned. He manages to rent a ghastly pool house (for $800 a month) on the alleged mistress's crumbling estate. At those prices, Weiner cannot afford to dawdle. But his landlady is either senile or maliciously evasive. She never leaves her home and ignores requests for an appointment. Weiner starts screening the mail coming into the house and the trash going out ("on the whole, the garbage was a waste"). Growing desperate for information of any kind, Weiner inaugurates a love affair with Jonica, the woman's granddaughter (and conceivably Harding's as well), who is both stupid and immensely fat: "As for her body, I won't go into any details but I will say this: she had a lot of dimples. Everywhere." Weiner's caddish machinations produce a tidbit of news: Grandma has a huge trunk of old papers in her bedroom, and she dips into this cache every night to read herself to sleep.

Knowing this information is one thing. Doing anything about it, short of armed robbery, seems impossible. In portraying his hero's frustrations, First Novelist Robert Plunket successfully establishes the kind of moral guidelines essential to classical comedy. Weiner's plotting only seems to bring him closer to his goal; he is, in fact, punished every time he slips into cruel or unusual behavior. Seducing Jonica means that he also is obliged to listen to her: " 'I have to trust. I have to feel,' she told me. I have to go to bed, I thought. Never had I heard such tripe." Fortunately, Weiner is not nearly as wicked or unprincipled as he pretends. "There was nothing I wouldn't stoop to," he says, but the claim is transparently false. His ineptitude as a villain is exceeded only by his bafflement at the world around him.

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