It is very rare that I finish a book with no real opinion about whether it was a good book or a bad book, but I think that this is a bad book, perhaps even a very bad book — unless, of course, you are on an airplane (check) and are not really in the mood to think much (check). My verdict is that if you don’t own a Kindle, wait for this one to be remaindered or at least come out in paperback. And I suppose whether you like American Adulterer may well depend on what you expect of historical novels in the first place. This one takes such obvious liberties with the actual history of the Kennedy administration that it isn’t clear whether, in its exhaustive attempts to explain how Jack Kennedy lived in his own ailing and hypersexual body, it adds anything to the vast amount of regurgitated information that is published about the Kennedy family on an annual basis.
There are certain fields of American history in which, if you have a new idea (or better yet a new way of rewriting what has already been published), you are certain to sell a lot of books. The Civil War is one of them, as is the CIA, the FBI and the Kennedy family. Why the American appetite for these topics is inexhaustible I do not know, but I do know that when I put nearly all the books I received last year as a reader for the AHA’s Beveridge Prize up on Amazon, these were the ones that flew off the shelf in a matter of weeks. I vowed six or seven years ago not to read another book on any Kennedy, no matter how tempting it seemed to be, and held successfully to that vow until a few days ago when I was leaving on vacation, couldn’t raise an interest in a single novel I already had waiting for me at home, and saw American Adulterer sitting out on the New Books table at the Oligarch University Bookstore. I bit.
And I’m not sorry — I have always loved historical novels, and I always learn something about writing from them. What fiction can do for history, this book tries to do with more energy than I have seen since Joe Klein’s Primary Colors (1996). It speculates about Kennedy’s prodigious appetite for women, what he himself might have thought about it, and how he reconciled his life as a — what’s the word for it? pussy hound — with his life as a devoted family man and his job as leader of the free world. It speculates that he had an elaborate philosophy of sex, in which some people were physically suited to monogamy and others weren’t. It speculates that he had an elaborate set of rules and justifications for lying to and using people because his need for sex simply did not fit the dominant monogamist view, and that his special needs and special mission in the world entitled him to beat the monogamists at their own game by any means necessary. They were small, he was great. Not such a bad premise for a fictional account of a presidency if you think about it.
But the novel just doesn’t work: it should entice, and instead it repels. It should cause the reader to understand the magnetism of this complex, intellectual President, and something interesting about the twin intoxications of sex and power at the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. Instead it portrays Kennedy as a mean, selfish and not-very-sexy compartmentalizer. Inexplicably, this same person also has political insights that far surpass others of the political class in his generation.
Now because I have bowed out of the business of reading every last thing that is published about the Kennedys, I cannot tell you whether anything in this novel is based on truth or rumor. I cannot tell you whether, for example, Marilyn Monroe really thought he might divorce Jackie and make her the First Lady in a second Kennedy administration; whether the president really nicknamed two of his female White House staff Fiddle and Faddle, eventually added a third he named Fuddle, and in the end forgetting all of their real names and which was which; or whether he had a Reichian physician who reassured him that the regular release of orgone energy was critical to maintaining good health and could only be successfully accomplished by ejaculating regularly with a succession of new women. I do not know whether it is the case that these new women were successfully recruited and escorted past Secret Service details by a military aide otherwise known as The Beard. I do not know whether this President was, on the one hand, someone who saw very clearly that civil rights was something he needed to stand behind firmly; and on the other hand, treated women like Kleenex — necessary to his health, but to be thrown away immediately.
When not following the sex, Mercurio speculates about Kennedy’s health. The novel depistcs the President as in constant pain; constipated and with an inflamed urinary system; and suffering from ongoing nausea, allergies, asthma and headaches. At the time of the assassination the President was well on his way to an early death, Mercurio tells us, and might not even have been killed in Dallas except for being strapped into a rigid back brace made necessary because a woman finally pushed him to the floor when he put his hand up her skirt. It may or may not be correct, but it certainly is unpleasant to read about the bag of filth that our bodies are, even when in good health. Throughout the book there are multiple physicians (and a least one quack, although it is a little hard to tell them apart) treating him for his Addison’s Disease and his back injury. The actual physicians pump him full of steroids, testosterone, antibiotics and injections for pain; the quack pumps him full of pain killers, muscle relaxants, amphetamines and urges him to keep draining the toxins from his system by ejaculating regularly. Jackie is part of the system: she injects him when necessary, helps him on and off with his back brace that is a more closely guarded secret than his affairs, and eventually acquiesces to his philandering ways in exchange for spending gobs of money on herself. The only individuals who survive Mercurio’s attentions without being either the President’s enablers or his victims (and the women upon whom he expends his excess orgone energy fit both categories) are Caroline and John, Jack’s children, who he loves to distraction.
There are two things about this book that kept jerking me back to reality in a way one never wants to be when reading a novel, much less a historical novel. One is that Mercurio makes deliberate parallels to William Jefferson Clinton’s infidelities. Clinton appears in the book briefly, in that famous photo op with Kennedy taken when he was a teenager. Subsequently, Kennedy says to J. Edgar Hoover, who has come to inform him that his affairs or a breach of national security: “I did not have a sexual relationship with that woman.” Towards the end of the novel, there is someone only identified as The Intern who regularly fellates the President under his desk and, in a spectacular moment after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in a small room right off the Oval Office. Remember that room? Remember that Intern?
The other thing that I found worrisome, other than Mercurio’s clarity about a civil rights agenda that we know Kennedy did not privilege over his own re-election, is the complete absence of Bobby Kennedy from the book. Even though there is an extended chunk of the narrative spent on Hoover and on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the
Attorney General and prominent member of ExCom does not appear in the novel at all. This is downright strange, and I can only imagine a few scenarios leading to this omission: one is that Ethel Kennedy, or one of her many lawyer children, promised to sue the pants off Simon and Schuster if her husband was implicated in this tawdry little tale. Another is that such a prominent omission is a strategy for making the book suit-proof period, since it clearly can’t pretend to be history if Jack Kennedy’s closest and most trusted advisor is not even in the book. The last is that the book simply wouldn’t have worked as the Frat Boys Go Wild In The White House tale that it is with Bobby, who was the closest thing to a priest a married man might be, in the book.
In any case, what the book does not do is what historical novels ought to do, in my opinion. They ought to offer a convincing historical explanation, or insight, based on lively speculation about the evidence at hand. They ought to make the sharp judgments about good, evil and human weakness that academic histories have to shy away from in order to remain academic. At the same time, their explanations and insights ought to be just as convincing as those offered by analytical history that sticks close to the evidence, even — or especially — if it offers an explanation that contradicts or differs from conventional historical arguments. And frankly, they ought to do what the best history does: entertain. Mercurio, I’m afraid, has accomplished none of these things. Instead he has offered up a story of grueling physical pain, joyless sex, misogyny and a New Frontier that was dripping with hypocrisy.