Mercurio's third novel is a riveting imagining of the inner life of a satyrlike John F. Kennedy, referred to as "the subject," as he beds a steady stream of starlets, interns and prostitutes. Kennedy's well-known insatiable and sometimes comical philandering is juxtaposed against his often cruel relationship with Jacqueline, his brilliance as a statesman (excerpts from his actual speeches are included) and devotion as a father, offering a unique portrait of a powerful yet stricken and conflicted man. The villains are the methamphetamine-prescribing doctors and the bloodthirsty American generals pushing the world to the brink of Armageddon. JFK's contemporaries are also cast in provocative roles, with the coke-sniffing Marilyn Monroe plotting to be first lady, the mobbed-up Frank Sinatra and Kennedy's Soviet counterpart-a peace-seeking Nikita Khrushchev-all making memorable appearances. Kennedy has figured prominently in hundreds of books, but Mercurio's take on the subject is fresh, bold and provocative. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
American Adulterer: A novelby Jed Mercurio
• Taut, magnificent prose: Mercurio’s premise—to chronicle Kennedy’s exploits, political and sexual, through the President’s own anguished but self-centered perspective—is bold to the point of hubris, but he succeeds in spades. The writing is elegant, spare, and wry; the narrative is exquisitely paced. The book’s ending is emotionally shattering—empathetic, redemptive, and shocking.
• Startlingly revisionist portrait of JFK: We see Kennedy at his best, as a visionary statesman, a former soldier turned moral pacifist, a loving parent and devoted husband. And we see him at his worst, as a compulsive philanderer whose countless conquests—of movie stars, socialites, secretaries, and interns—ruined hundreds of lives.
• Amazing cast of characters: They are all here: Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Angie Dickinson, Judith Campbell, LBJ, Fiddle and Faddle, Eisenhower, and perhaps most memorably, Jacqueline Kennedy.
Mercurio, author of the well-received novels Ascent and Bodies, returns with a novel centered on John F. Kennedy's severe medical problems and apparently equally relentless sex addiction. The story would be a snooze were it not for the all-too-brief moments given to Kennedy's speeches and his effect on policy and world events. Although the author amazes with his ability to describe the same sex acts differently each time, the tensions here derive from Kennedys battles with segregationists in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement and with both Nikita Khrushchev and American generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The rest of the book is bloated with Mercurio's bombastic imaginings of Kennedy's search for willing interns to appease his sexual appetite and for experimental injections to ease his physical pain. He helpfully offers a bibliography in case the reader wishes to know where he got this stuff. VERDICT Sex sells, and the Kennedys never lack for a fascinated audience, so perhaps this fiction will prove titillating and popular. [See Prepub Alert, LJ3/15/09.]—Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC
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The subject is an American citizen holding high elected office, married, and father to a young family, who takes the view that monogamy has seldom been the engine of great men's lives. He has always had women -- numerously, sequentially and simultaneously, in the form of family friends, heiresses, socialites, models, actresses, professional acquaintances, colleagues' spouses, party girls, shopgirls and prostitutes -- following the youthful discovery that he liked women and they liked him.
Only in the course of longer-lasting affairs did the question of marriage arise; it was not something he took seriously until his political ambitions began to include high office, whereupon it was clarified by numerous colleagues that a good marriage was not merely an advantage but a necessity. A politician must remain publicly faithful to those principles and causes he chooses to follow; whether he remains faithful to his wife is another question.
Seven years ago, at age thirty-six, he married a beautiful young woman twelve years his junior. He will not admit defrauding his marital vows. Before God, he decided not to be derailed by the impossibility of making promises based upon the permanence of love, when it is clear to any thinking person that to guarantee one's state of mind in twenty or even thirty years' time is preposterous. Taking vows is merely etiquette -- as is appearing to observe them.
His bride convinced herself that the institution of marriage would wave a magic wand over his catholic libido. Of course, in those days a good part was directed toward her. He refuses to blame himself for her misconception. She was attracted to aman who had his pick of women. If she had wanted the type who struggles to get laid, then she should have married one -- certainly there are enough to choose from.
When he sees a beautiful woman, he wants to make love to her. That has been a natural, physical desire he has experienced since youth. If marriage had quelled the impulse, no one would have been happier than he -- with the exception, of course, of his wife.
Once married, obviously the subject had to become more discreet. He always denied any wrongdoing, except to essential accomplices. Work occupied him at weekends and in the evenings, and, for many months during that initial phase of their marriage, he impressed on his wife that he was absent in the company of men or in the service of work with females present by coincidence. Over time, his plausible denials failed to disabuse his wife of her suspicions. His periods away from home and his social engagements in the presence of attractive women were opportunities for fornication but only as long as he retained the requisite appetite. Her epiphany was provoked by what she saw in front of her rather than that which he hid behind her back: stolen glances, lingering handshakes, and subtle shifts in the focus of his attention during the telling of an anecdote. No matter how strenuous his denials, the insight that prevailed was that his sexual interest in other women had not expired.
As time passed, he remained convinced his wife was an excellent choice and one he certainly did not regret, save for her lack of accommodation to his need for an independent personal life, so he adopted the stratagem of reminding her constantly of her status. He puts her first in all things, and her place in his life, and in his heart, is unique and secure. It may come as no surprise that these proclamations did not end the matter.
After three years of marriage, his wife gave birth to a stillborn daughter, the child arriving prematurely, while he was on vacation in the Mediterranean. There were wild nights on the yacht, and he had sex with four women in total, one of whom sailed with his party for a time and became a short-term mistress. He was reluctant to return home, as he was having such a fine time and the mistress was a stunning blonde, but he made the sacrifice for the sake of their marriage.
Yet, in her distress, his wife threatened divorce. She remained angry and upset for so long that he worried the effort of constant denial would wear him out. Thankfully the subject is convinced his wife has never acquired irrefutable proof of his adultery. His single-minded determination to protect his privacy has allowed their love to prevail.
The obstetrician counseled them to conceive again as soon as possible, for his wife's well-being. Both parties share a commitment to resilience. They have both enjoyed much fortune in their lives, so they must not resent misfortune; obstacles must be overcome and tragedies endured without complaint. So it was imperative that rancor be set aside, though some months passed before his independent personal life could again be a fit subject for rational examination. By then, his wife was pregnant again, and they are now not only blessed with a beautiful three-year-old daughter, but his wife is also expecting their next child.
Fatherhood has been the great blessing brought by marriage. He values the stable companionship of a wife, and also the social and professional advantages that accompany having a consort and hostess, but the emotional core of life lies in his relationship with his child. One might argue that marriage provides a vehicle for such men to father children responsibly. Kings left bastard children scattered throughout their lands, denied their father's patronage, just as common men of weak character drift out of their children's lives for selfish reasons.
The subject intends to provide for his children the safe and loving home only a marriage can offer. In this statement, he considers his own experience: his father traveled a good deal, as is only to be expected of a successful and important businessman and politician, and in his youth he discovered his father was far from a faithful husband. His mother appeared completely faithful; in fact, she was a devout observer of her marital vows. Yet his mother is not a demonstratively loving parent: when he was a child, and often quite sick, she regularly made trips for her own private reasons and he would not see her for weeks. In reflecting briefly upon his upbringing, he concludes that his opinion of neither parent is colored by their fidelity.
His wife's father was also a philanderer. He was a public embarrassment to the subject's mother-in-law, so they divorced. The subject's parents remain married. However, his mother denied his father sex once she'd borne his youngest brother; his father's mistresses served a substitute function, though the subject never formed the impression it was a course of action he pursued with a great many scruples. In contrast, the subject's wife doesn't deny him sex; if that were enough to satisfy him, life would be simple.
Virtually all males possess the sexual impulse, essential to continuation of the species, though they possess it to greater or lesser degrees, and in some cases the urge is not directed toward the conventional model of feminine pulchritude, or toward females at all. The subject doesn't believe such men are morally deviant. They experience desires generated by their bodily hormones. Each of us must take a moral view on the repercussions of satisfying his natural desires, and in the past he's been given to reflecting on his own case. He 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. Past reflections only reaffirmed his conviction that promiscuous sexual relations with consenting partners not his wife are no cause for moral self-recrimination. He no longer examines his conduct, proceeding with a clear conscience.
This point of view is reinforced by his observation that constant desire for women appears both natural and normal. He is not an animal overcome with a bestial urge. He does not rip the clothes from a woman's body and ravish her in public. He asks her about herself. He endeavors to interest and amuse her. When he concludes there is a possibility of mutual attraction, he employs direct but delicate methods of suggesting sex.
That is not to say that he has never practiced restraint. He has desired women who were already taken by another man he liked, respected or feared, or who were confidantes of his wife, or whom he's solely encountered in the close company of his wife. In such cases, he consigns himself to the misery of continence.
It must be understood that his compulsion is more complex than simple sexual release. He gains far greater satisfaction from the pursuit and conquest of a novel desirable woman than from sex with his familiar desirable wife. It is not even the nature of the sex act itself: for the most part he does not act with extramarital partners differently from how he acts with his wife, and for the most part they do not perform with markedly greater alacrity or aptitude (or, for that matter, markedly less) than her, nor does the intimacy of "love" make the physical experience any more (or less) pleasurable for him. Novelty is the most intense sexual thrill: novelty of sexual partner. He compares the experience to unwrapping a present. The anticipation can be breathless.
His wife dreads their circle inferring she does not arouse him sexually. Picture one occasion: she holds a gin in her hand, her eyes burn with fury, and she screams at him, "She'd better be gorgeous!" before sweeping out of the room. He's never invited his wife to elucidate this remark. The conclusion he's reached, forming the basis of the first rule of his adultery, is that it would help her to know that a mistress was so beautiful that any husband, however loving, would be tempted to be unfaithful. How many married men would reject the chance to go to bed with a magnificent beauty if they could be sure of getting away with it? Her remark also reflects the importance his wife places, even in betrayal, on matters of taste.
When she suspects his philandering, he will deliberately contract the period of time an affair might have lasted. Though he will always deny the accusation, his second rule recognizes it respects her sensitivities to assume a particular girlfriend is someone he could have been with only once. The more of a habit the subject forms with a mistress, the greater the challenge it poses to the uniqueness of his wife's position, which is a state of affairs both would regard with disapproval.
At the end of lengthy denials, or simply after a refusal to engage with her allegations, he will conclude that meeting the criteria of the first two rules will console her should she remain suspicious, but the reality remains unspoken between them: she has no proof of his philandering, nor does he have proof that she has no proof. He will never hurt or embarrass her by confirming his dalliances, not just to her but to anyone, which introduces the third rule.
Once his wife has exhausted herself trying to provoke a confession, she may say, "If I think there's something going on, who else does?" or "If I know" (bearing in mind she doesn't, for sure), "who else knows?" It is insufficient for his wife not to know -- nobody must know. In the old days, he would be most content with women who had the most distant possible connection to his work, his family or his wife. The less they knew about him, the better. He kept many a girlfriend out of town who had only the vaguest idea of his identity, who would know nobody that could start a chain of gossip linking back to his wife. Even if he was open with the girlfriend, he could discount the probability of running into her at a social engagement in the company of his wife. This rule was the "nobody knows" rule, and he was never more secure in his philandering than when a mistress assumed he was single and childless, barely knew his name and therefore had no telling details to broadcast to anyone else, but now his new position makes it extremely unlikely a woman won't be familiar with the principal biographical facts.
Therefore, for the first time in his adult life, he must consider curtailing his sexual adventures, though he endeavors to convince himself there must be hope. Perhaps on foreign tours he will encounter moments of privacy with a willing secretary, or on the campaign trail with a discreet former girlfriend. But the machinations of adultery take their toll on one's concentration. While he regards the prospect of monogamy as one would a prison sentence, a man of his resilience must concede that it might require that he approach the coming years with the serenity of one facing internment, and find some solace in being spared the stresses of seduction, fornication and concealment under what will certainly be the most challenging of circumstances. While he's certain that the question of temptation will arise at some point, it is by no means predictable how he will answer it.
In the past, the subject has been an expert in concealment, yet he is not a conniving philanderer: he doesn't tell women that his wife doesn't understand him, or that she denies him sex, or that he's a doleful figure daily on the verge of suicide on account of being trapped in some loveless marriage from which only the willing tenderness of another female soul will save him. Instead he says simply that he has the best marriage practicable for a man like him, but that monogamy is quite impossible; he needs more, bigger, faster sex than decades with the same woman can ever provide, and, to the woman in question, the one before him whom he's aiming to seduce, he reveals that he has chosen her from all the others at the dinner or the party or the rally because she is the one whose sex lures him.
"Altiora peto," he whispers: "I seek higher things." But no place exists in the seduction for the promise of an enduring affair, the office of mistress or the prospect that he will fall in love and divorce his wife. Surely all the indications must self-evidently point toward the contrary. Yet, to his dismay, often this woman cannot bear to see her delusions of romance remain unrealized. She threatens to tell his wife; she may threaten to sell her story to the press, but the newspapers have no interest in the private life of a public figure.
When the subject pursued an affair with an aide in his previous political post, the relationship was discovered by her pious landlady, who subsequently launched a volley of letters on the subject to the press, even snapping a photograph of him leaving the apartment in the middle of the night. The lady took the view that his appearance of being a devoted husband and father was a sham. Hers was the simplistic fallacy of the moral monogamist, but the gentlemen of the press never ran the story, showing the more sophisticated understanding that there is no inherent contradiction between loving one's wife and child and keeping a mistress.
Making love with Pamela, the aide, a couple of nights a week didn't discourage him from treating his wife and daughter with love and tenderness. In fact, as his irrepressible urges enjoyed an outlet, his wife and daughter were spared the short temper of the frustrated male, and certainly there was no question of the girlfriend suffering in the slightest, apart from the inconvenience of the move when she wisely sought a new apartment, and subsequently he arranged a new appointment for her (as his wife's Press Secretary).
That affair occurred at the time he and his wife were attempting to start a family, soon after they settled into their marital home in Georgetown. Sex shrunk to a medical process; the deed had to be done, so to speak, rather like pulling a tooth. By comparison, the successful experience of lust is abundantly invigorating, though he did receive his therapeutic courses with extreme circumspection for the sake of his wife's fragile emotional condition, and they successfully produced their daughter at the end of the following year. She was handed to him bundled inside a blanket, and he cradled her at his wife's bedside, this tiny crying thing more animal than human.
On a tranquil sea, he had sailed across an invisible equator and would remain oblivious till the moment he changed course: only then would his compasses spin, only then would he realize he was lost. He broke off with Pamela and resisted other temptations. His fear lay in the uncertainty of how his wife, now a mother, now the apex of their little triangle, would regard his independent personal ventures, and whether this successful transcendence into family life would galvanize her into adopting a less capitulatory position. At times it felt like his life had been taken over by a creature who could only communicate by crying. And there was also the baby. He had grown wearily accustomed to the occasional instances wherein his wife's suspicions seethed into a crisis of anguish and insecurity, but now he feared the prospect of their daughter being yanked into these melodramas. Yet he needn't have worried, because in the end such anxieties played more tellingly on his wife, who foresaw that, though the necessity to protect and provide for their daughter fell on both of them, she was the one who had in larger measure surrendered her independence. After her parents' divorce, her mother found herself seeking remarriage as the sole means of restoring domestic stability to her children's lives. She would only be forced to pursue elsewhere the comfort and security the subject provides (in addition to social standing and companionship), with the possibility that the new man would be a less loving father to their daughter and perhaps even possess the same vices as the subject, if not greater ones.
This deduction did not wholly deliver him from fear. He became unusually tense, convincing his wife he was concealing a relapse of the back condition that had necessitated major surgeries three years earlier and which augured incapacity, plus the abrupt termination of his ambitions for higher office. Although the true cause of his irritability was the caesura in his womanizing, he would regard the prospect of losing the capacity to vent his sexual impulses with the same despair as he would losing the ability to walk.
While his daughter captivated him, he was becoming resentful of his life condensing into a suffocating matrix. Fidelity was making him a worse husband and father than when he was philandering, to the extent that he feared becoming as austere to his child as his own mother had been to him, and therefore some months following the arrival of their daughter he resumed his customary pursuit of additional sexual partners, discovering to his utmost relief that he could continue in this vein under the same conditions as prior to his daughter's birth. He could be an object of greater constancy in his daughter's life by virtue of the freedom not to be a constant presence in their home every night and every weekend, and a greater support to his wife because he no longer resented her as one resents a prison warden. Monogamy and parenthood were invented by moral authorities to sublimate the male sexual urge, but in his case the effect resembles pressurizing a gasoline tank.
Today he would regard theirs as an exceptionally happy family. Their daughter enjoys the love of two parents, the comfort of a secure home, and the constant attention of a doting father. When he looks back at those first moments he held his daughter, he realizes what he experienced was impotence, in the form of a repression of his freedom to fornicate, but resilience has won through: he did not desert his responsibilities to his family, nor did he destroy himself in the slow, withering bitterness of monogamy. Free from the dread and resentment of three years ago, he is able to welcome the birth of their next child.
His wife goes into labor three weeks early. On account of her obstetric history, the doctors take no chances and deliver the baby, a boy, by emergency cesarean section. Named John after his father, their son appears healthy, but as a precaution due to his prematurity he is placed in an incubator. His mother remains in the operating room while his father trails the pediatricians, the boy cradled by a nurse, and then the father gazes at the son as he is sealed inside the warm glass box, where he wriggles and howls, a pink quiver of life. When the subject returns to his wife, they share tears of joy; the families gather, and soon the hospital is inundated with gifts for their son, toys and clothes, bouquets for his wife, from friends, celebrities and dignitaries.
The subject's visits to the hospital represent the first normal social encounters since the election two weeks ago. A few months earlier, he would have appeared a man of some distinction, but no one would have known his name, even if the face appeared somehow familiar. Now people respond to him in quite a different manner. They are nervous; they stumble over their words; they blush when he looks at them; some, he worries, go out of their way to avoid him, while others slink into nooks to watch as he marches within a phalanx of crew-cut bodyguards.
Naturally he's curious about the women. A year ago he would have anticipated a certain reaction. He's come to appreciate that he wears the demeanor of an alpha male. He stands just over six feet tall, with a tanned complexion that conveys rude health and sharply tailored suits that flatter his trim physique. He is blessed with thick, light-brown hair, in contrast to the grey heads and receding hairlines of many men his age. It is no vain posturing but a self-evident fact that he is a physically attractive man for his age, and exceptionally so for his status.
In the past, he could have expected some nurse to glance admiringly as he strolled by, or to smile if he caught her eye, or even to flirt a little bit if he happened to engage her in conversation, but today none of them show any such signs, instead dropping their eyes like Victorian servants if he so much as glances in their direction. A gulf has opened. He has become remote from women, an austere figure with whom sex is unattainable, and in these first encounters of this newest phase of his career as a philanderer, he experiences a plunging despair, not only because he is never unwatched, but from the realization that the nurses of Georgetown University Hospital must stand for all women the nation wide in that it appears not one would dare abandon her obeisance and go to bed with the newly elected President of the United States.
Copyright © 2009 by Jed Mercurio
Meet the Author
Jed Mercurio trained as a doctor and, while at medical school, received extensive flying training with the Royal Air Force. As a resident in internal medicine, he wrote a groundbreaking medical drama for the BBC, Cardiac Arrest. His first novel, Bodies, was chosen by The Guardian as one of the top five debuts of 2002. He adapted the novel into an award-winning drama series for the BBC and is currently developing a version for American television. He lives outside London.
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I couldn't even finish it. Sure I appreciate the research effort, but the actual writing was horrendous. I counted NINE lines of text for one sentence, NINE! and the author insists on calling Kennedy by "the subject" which is really aggravating. His purpose might have been to keep it non personal, but it just perpetuates my anger. and the language chosen to address Kennedy's issues was much too graphic at times, in an unnecessary way. A non-fiction book that made me feel dirty reading it, is a good way to put it. Stay away from this one.
Struggling with the "fictional" presentation. Wish it had been written as factual or in a different "person" format. Disappointed with what I have read so far and don't see it getting any better/easier.
Making money off lies about a dead President is sickening. Shame on the author, editors, and publisher of this dreck. I wish I could give this trash negative stars.