Readers could spend a lot of time trying to sort fact from fiction in American Adulterer, but that pursuit might lead them away from the book's truth.
British author Jed Mercurio undertakes a challenging task in his third book: writing a novel about the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Countless volumes of history, analysis and gossip have been published about the charismatic, controversial 35th president of the United States, who was assassinated in 1963, less than three years into his first term, and entered immediately into the equally unreliable realms of legend and conspiracy theory.
As the title suggests, one of the book's main subjects is Kennedy's storied sex life, hidden from the public during his lifetime but the focus of endless speculation since.
Readers looking for a salacious romp will be disappointed, but so will those hoping for a finger-wagging sermon about straying politicians.
Not that Kennedy doesn't get busy in this novel. If half the activities Mercurio catalogs happened (and he based the book on diligent research), JFK makes Mark Sanford, John Edwards and the rest of the current crop of cheaters look like a pack of lazy schoolboys.
But Mercurio is up to something more subtle, more complex than fantasizing about the sexual opportunities of the most powerful man in the world. American Adulterer draws a vivid — sometimes excruciatingly so — picture of Kennedy's constant battle with the physical pain caused by serious injuries on the football field and during World War II, complicated by the debilitating effects of Addison's disease and the dizzying array of drugs his team of doctors pumped into him to keep him functioning — and to keep the public in the dark about his health.
The novel also takes us through some of the major political crises Kennedy faced — the Bay of Pigs debacle, the early conflicts of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, his successes with the Cuban missile standoff, the nuclear test ban treaty and the creation of the space program — and shows him growing into the demands of his job.
And it shows him growing into the role of loving father and, with more difficulty, devoted husband. Despite the endless parade of secretaries, socialites and prostitutes, Mercurio's Kennedy becomes a man falling in love with his wife.
So is this Kennedy a despicable cad or a Camelot-style hero? Or — a more interesting question — can a man be both?
The novel is written in third person, with Kennedy usually referred to as "the subject," as if the narrator is a psychiatrist studying his sexual obsessions.
That clinical voice may come naturally to Mercurio, who trained as a doctor but left that career after he wrote a controversial medical drama, Cardiac Arrest, for the BBC. (His first novel, Bodies, also became a BBC series.) Mercurio said in a recent interview with Publishers Weekly that part of his preparation for writing American Adulterer was studying Kennedy's medical history and creating a treatment plan for such a patient.
That voice allows detachment and intimacy at once — something like Kennedy's sex life as Mercurio imagines it. The novel opens in the early days of his presidency. Kennedy, who has enjoyed countless carnal encounters since his teens, is convinced that for him sexual release is a medical necessity; he tells the British prime minister in an unguarded moment that if he doesn't have a woman at least every three days, he gets sick.
He has never had a problem satisfying that prescription before, but now that he's living in the spotlight of the White House, he realizes that "he's fallen from a man who's lain with goddesses to one forbidden to utter two words to an intern."
Not for long. He first co-opts his Secret Service agents into letting his longtime lover Marilyn Monroe into his hotel room in California to continue an affair that will end with his rejection and her suicide. "The suicide does not imbue the subject with guilt," the narrator tells us coolly, "nor should it. That particular weakness proves utterly destructive to the philanderer."
Before long, Kennedy is mowing through the White House's female staffers so fast he can't keep their names straight. Mercurio doesn't paint Kennedy as much of a charming seducer. If a woman doesn't respond to his advances quickly, he just moves on to the next one, and some of his male staffers and friends (including Frank Sinatra) serve as his pimps. The sex itself is often bleak and brief. Given his disabilities (and a back brace that almost immobilized him), the many women who did respond couldn't have been having much fun in the act.
Yet this callous, lecherous misogynist loves his two young children to distraction, and he is endlessly fascinated by his wife, Jacqueline, who responds to his betrayals mainly with dignified silence and breathtaking spending sprees for haute couture and interior decor.
Mercurio follows the rake's progress from Kennedy's confidence that he can get away with it — "the newspapers have no interest in the private life of a public figure" — to the dawning of a new age of appetite for scandal as the Profumo affair, involving a government official and a prostitute, takes over the British tabloids.
As Kennedy's political powers grow, his private life crashes: the wrenching death of his premature son, Patrick; his own rapidly failing health; the threat of an enemy within in the form of a thoroughly creepy J. Edgar Hoover.
American Adulterer accelerates toward an end we know is coming, yet Mercurio lets us see it in a new and illuminating way.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.