Monday, February 01, 2010

American Adulterer Book Review By Jargontalk

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American Adulterer Book Review By Jargontalk

Starting on the very first paragraph, author Jed Mercurio quickly sets the stage for his new book, American Adulterer. The reader quickly sees that the primary character in the book is observed as a case study. The forensic style was to this reviewer at first almost irritating, but the flat tone of the narrative actually adding to the ensuing drama. To anyone who is even a basic follower of American history, it doesn't take long to figure out who the main character is, though it's not until page 23 that we read of the new President being sworn in:

"I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

This is a gripping novel, a work of fiction that surrounds President John F. Kennedy's personality and life as US President. It focus is on JFK's tremendously high libido, catered to under often chancy circumstances, and all the while with the President suffering from a range of almost unbearable illnesses while managing to maintain a flawless public image. Kennedy's actions define the term womanizer. Marilyn Monroe heads the seemingly limitless list of his conquests and included Angie Dickinson, and Judith Campbell Exner, all while his elegant wife pursed her lips. The President bedded actresses, society beauties, a variety of call-girls, White House junior staffers with stars in their eyes, as well as the foreseeable intern or two.

This is Jed Mercurio's third novel, following Bodies and Ascent, and it's in a different style from his earlier writings. Author Mercurio portrays Kennedy's proclivities as 'sex addiction', and tells his story in the wording of a psychiatrist's private notes. JFK becomes ' the Subject', and we learn much about his anxieties and ailments, as well as his private rules regarding adultery. Like many great political leaders, Kennedy possessed a libido that matched his political ambition. He tells a bemused Harold Macmillan, "If I don't have a women for three days, I get terrible headaches."

Fictionalizing the lives and penchants of presidents and politicians is nothing new. Joe Klein did it quite well with his book Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, in which he satirized Bill Clinton's successful first campaign. Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife imagined a First Lady Laura Bush that might be hidden behind her unusually serene public mask. Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark book All the King's Men in 1947, a loosely fictionalized account of populist political demagogue Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, one of the nation's most astounding politicians. These are all fictionalized accounts of real people involved in real events of American politics, as is this one.

Author Mercurio's writing is good enough to create long episodes of prolonged dramatic tension, even when you're aware of the outcome, as happens with novels that fictionalize real events. The Cuban missile crisis in the early '60s is skillfully reconstructed with all of its end-of-the-world tension. There are also a few laughs here and there, though they usually tend towards immature humor. In one chapter that broaches the anxieties that underlie Kennedy's masculinity, a swaggering Frank Sinatra drops his swimming shorts before JFK and a pool full of females in Palm Beach to reveal his "brutal" male appendage. Before jumping into the pool, he wisecracks, "This makes me first man." How you react to that puerile quip may tell you how you might react to the book. Luckily these are far and few between.

The evidence for John F. Kennedy's libido and demonstrated adventurism has already been published in several biographies, and none have hurt his enduring charisma or his political reputation as a leader. The Clinton Era has come and gone, leaving the world with few false impressions as to the imperfections of those who hold the highest office. There is a rather lewd FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover telling JFK to knock off the affairs. There's also a tongue-in-cheek reference to Clinton and his well-known Monica moment when Kennedy is asked, "Have you had sexual relations with this woman?"

As a nation, we have a thing for Kennedy's Camelot and the pre-Vietnam era. The huge success of the acclaimed Mad Men television series bears witness to our ongoing fascination with those times.

For all its aura of a long-gone era, when the private lives of the politically powerful were protected from the public gaze, Mercurio's American Adulterer is a novel of our times. It's prurient, though detached; salacious, but unobjectionable. It has its flat spots, but if one can be objective about the topic and writing style, all in all it's a good read.

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