John F. Kennedy notoriously admitted to the British Prime Minister that he got pounding headaches if he went three days without a woman. Here’s a novel that asks the question, Was the President desperately driven into bed with other women by medical problems, or was he just a horndog with a doctor’s note?
By all appearances, American Adulterer seems like an axe-job on the late President’s moral legacy. It turns out to be quite the opposite, in spite of a very unflattering reimagining of JFK’s infidelities and physical frailties.
The medical interest the author takes in him (my galley copy makes no secret whatsoever of Jed Mercurio’s experience in internal medicine) is what I found most surprising. You may or may not know that JFK was a very sickly kid—one whose family often joked, “If a mosquito had bitten Jack, the mosquito would surely die.” His condition would not improve with age (nor would it stop him, though, from serving in the Pacific Theater in WWII, where he sustained back injuries that further enfeebled him), and we now know his problems mainly stemmed from Addison’s Disease, which stymies adrenal gland function and sets off a whole host of plagues.
It also altered his skin pigmentation to what people assumed was his divine year-round tan. Infamously, Jack had no trouble getting ladies when he tried, and try he did; the Commander-in-Chief could almost make an intern’s clothes fly off with the wink of his eye. The novel chronicles his term of office with special focus on his extramarital dalliances, from Marilyn to a prostitute suspected to be a spy for the Warsaw Pact. Strangely, with each sexual conquest his rampant pain and nausea is noticeably calmed…
The first thing to strike you about this book (besides the premise) is its narration, which is told from a clinical perspective regarding its “Subject”:
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.
It was a prose style that had me flipping to see how many pages I had to endure of it, and wonder whether I could. Thankfully, the novel loosens to a more conventional voice after the first couple chapters. The best way I can describe American Adulterer is to say it’s a Philip Roth novel written on a clipboard (in fact, the President’s spectacularly failed come-on near the end thoroughly smacks of Portnoy’s Complaint—right in the family jewels).
What the Doctor Ordered
The vacuous codependent Marilyn, the crooning hoodrat Frank, hawkish generals seemingly pulled straight from Dr. Strangelove, a concubinal pair of secretaries codenamed Fiddle and Faddle… the book’s characters, even of real figures, are so colorful that when Mercurio drops in a German quack named “Dr. Feelgood” to attend to the President’s pains, he fits right in.
As for the President himself, I began recognizing him as Don Draper from Mad Men, but both a better man and worse.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation becomes a villain in this story. Oddly, I found myself jeering at its notorious crossdressing “Director”, whose threatening internal investigation clamps The President into paranoia and cuts him off from his panaceaic poontang.
I’ve read some early criticisms of this book insisting that far too much of it is devoted to the President’s dauntless search for the next piece of ass. I gingerly advise these readers to flip to the book’s cover and note the title inscribed on it. At least there is, as ridiculous as this sounds, a sense of urgency to his carousing, for his pain-wracked mind can’t focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis unless he can procure a willing receptacle for his manseed every couple of days.
Needless to say this book isn’t for everybody. I say the trick is not to take it too seriously. It’s darkly comic with moments of tenderness and integrity that highlight the President’s feelings toward his children and his duty to his country (the excerpted speeches laced in the novel do wonders for the latter).
“Did You Have Sexual Relations With That Woman?”
Mercurio’s main thesis is that the President’s philandering does not compromise the integrity of his philanthropy. The President’s arguments with the FBI Director bring this booklong debate front and center: a President’s infidelity is no real contradiction to his greater moral aims for humanity.
We’re rolling with the cheeky theory that our protagonist makes better Presidential decisions after shooting his rocks off. And of course his power enables him to seduce women for this purpose, so the sides are interdependent.
But I don’t think they’re reconciled.
They both exist, as two sides of the same coin, but they’re not unified under some single principle the President follows, so the world leader and the brothel creeper really do feel like separate men. I know some sane people really do work like that, but I think the book would have been made more fascinating could Mercurio convince us that the President’s poles somehow sprang from the same morality, flawed though it would be.
This is mostly assuming The President’s ailments are in fact alleviated by his extramarital fornication— a good discussion might be had over whether or not this is actually true in the novel. Also good fodder are the “truths” of male/female interaction as understood by the Subject, particularly “the Transaction” that takes place between men of power and women of beauty. I’m convinced that we’re supposed to question the veracity of these views.
This is a good book. It’s padded in places and Mercurio overindulges in his own wittiness, but there’s real substance here within its cheeky-upstart trappings.