For any readers out there who weren’t already aware of John F. Kennedy’s tawdry private life, Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer paints a pretty picture. With nothing particular to add but a cold, clinical tone, Mercurio’s third novel grinds the glamorous idealist right out of its famous protagonist too late to recombine man and myth before the tragic finish.
The book picks up the story of Camelot just after the 1960 presidential election, as Kennedy, referred to throughout the novel as “the subject,” initially faces the probability that his new public position will curtail his extramarital affairs. Believing against medical advice that his womanizing represents an important treatment for his array of health problems (this theme springs from a quip Kennedy made to the British Prime Minister about needing a woman every three days), the president dallies with a visiting Marilyn Monroe, familiarizes himself with pretty young secretaries, and eventually learns how to bring women through the gauntlet of White House security. Even when he’s most flagrantly unfaithful to the wife he loves and will not contemplate divorcing, he remains convinced that she doesn’t know the extent of his escapades, which more than once take precedence over matters of state.
As a chronicle of a sex addict and his enablers, American Adulterer doles out the occasional dry lecture about the compulsions that drive its subject. Still, the remove granted by treating Kennedy’s womanizing at arm’s length works against Mercurio when the situation calls for empathizing with him waiting at a Boston hospital for the prognosis of his as-yet-unborn son, or pacing the floor of the Oval Office. Particularly lifeless is the section on the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the text of speeches and letters written to Khrushchev interrupt the pace of Kennedy’s internal conflict, which is never properly fleshed out to begin with. Jackie Kennedy, constantly described as “mysterious,” is a mere projection of the president’s feelings; the prickly J. Edgar Hoover, who intimates in a few memorable scenes his willingness to blow the lid off the traffic through the Lincoln Bedroom, may be the book’s most likeable character. Lacking the courage of its convictions either way, American Adulterer only fires blanks.