Man Above Monogamy

JFK Novel Tries Too Hard for Clinical Approach

Posted July 27, 2009 at 3:43pm

The subject of Jed Mercurio’s latest book is “an American citizen holding high elected office.— But make no mistake — the protagonist of “American Adulterer— is clearly John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Even though readers don’t learn the truth until the second chapter, with the president’s recitation of the inaugural oath of office, the main character is clearly Kennedy from those first words. Oddly enough, the Kennedy name is never actually used. The main character is primarily called “the President— and sometimes “Jack— in conversation.

In an interview, Mercurio said his choice of the JFK character was not initially clear. “I had the idea of writing about a man who is outwardly perceived as virtuous but in truth has a very private personal life,— he said. “The more I learned about JFK’s life, the more he seemed like a fit.—

Mercurio said he found that JFK’s enigmatic past required him to use a writing style that did not leave readers with a sense of certainty. Indeed, Mercurio’s thorough research coupled with the book’s pseudo-clinical prose makes the book come across as a plausible account of JFK’s thoughts rather than an outright impossibility. For example, Kennedy (in an interior monologue) “resists applying the terms condition’ or pathology’ to his behavior, because he believes his libido lies within the variants of normal rather than being in any way abnormal, as would, for example, a sexual attraction to minors or to animals.—

The book’s narrative style is not the real point of interest, though, as the book’s title suggests more than a peek into the bedroom of Camelot. Certainly, the seamier side of JFK’s life is detailed, principally his sex life and multiple illnesses, and often how the two were interrelated.

However, readers should be cautioned not to expect a scintillating summer read. In fact, the president’s behavior is treated more like a case study. A fairly quick read at 334 pages, the book’s unusual style dovetails well with addressing the president’s multiple affairs and sickly condition. Sex for JFK is portrayed as a serious addiction, and his encounters with society girls, Mafia women, White House staff, prostitutes and even Marilyn Monroe are all mentioned.

But that is where the level of detail stops. It is not for entertainment purposes that the president’s sexual exploits are retold, but more for clinical analysis. The book is much more a psychological exploration than it is a Harlequin romance.

The president is shown to engage in numerous trysts and cope with his multiple illnesses, with his maladies often requiring sex — in his mind — to release “orgone energy— or to relieve splitting headaches. In other words, Mercurio portrays JFK’s promiscuous behavior as a natural extension of his physical desire. Monogamy does not factor at all, as he sees promises based upon love as impossible. To the JFK character, love and promiscuity are no way inconsistent with each other.

However, the president is not portrayed as heartless, either. In multiple passages, JFK is seen as someone who genuinely loves his wife, whose presence he relishes in part because of her mysterious qualities. Similarly, the story offers many tender moments with his young children, with bedtime stories and Oval Office visits.

Ultimately, the president is in many ways a strikingly Machiavellian character, who sees his personal life in terms of zero-sum analysis, with pronouncements such as “the subject takes the view that monogamy has seldom been the engine of great men’s lives.— Yet, his commitments to his country and his family are never in doubt.

Many of the book’s sex scenes and rampant clinical drug use are told in an awkward, cumbersome fashion, perhaps to confer dignity to the office of the president, but Mercurio does his reader no favors in using overwrought prose. For instance: “The end of a liaison is not something in which the subject takes pleasure, since a conquest who has graduated into a regular sexual partner will invariably be one who is physically appealing and socially adroit, while unsuitable partnerships he ends early, often after the first encounter, though he will usually persist with a seduction even in the knowledge the woman is unsuitable on account of her physical attractiveness or his heightened appetite at the time.—

At times, Mercurio seems to go out of his way to use an unnecessary number of thesaurus-found words in order to convey simple thoughts. He is also fond of endless sentences, with some taking up nearly half a page.

Aside from problems with the prose, an uncomfortable discussion of presidential bowel movements, and general difficulties in portraying sexual encounters, Mercurio’s book does broach questions for the reader: Can a leader be both good and bad at the same time? Are we merely conditioned to see monogamy as a necessity for presidential behavior, or should the execution of one’s elected duties be the sole benchmark of public judgment?

“American Adulterer— is not an indispensable read. At the same time, those wishing to learn quickly about JFK’s personal life should read the book. For others, the historical record already exists, along with a plethora of scholarship on the president’s life.

Overall, the book does have some value. Despite the cumbersome prose, it represents a worthy attempt to represent JFK’s intimate side, while raising some important questions along the way.