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Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy

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"American Adulterer" presents the doomed 35th president through an emotional imagining of Kennedy the man and his libido.

Illustration by Adam Zyglis/Buffalo NewsPeeking through fictional windows into the bedrooms of CamelotBy Christopher SchobertNEWS BOOK REVIEWER July 19, 2009, 7:31 AM / Story tools: LargerSmallerSavePrintEmailMore PhotosShare this story: Sometimes a novel seizes your attention in the first few pages, or over a couple particularly involving chapters.

Jed Mercurio's brilliant "American Adulterer" grabbed me in its opening paragraph, and it never let go: "The subject is an American citizen holding 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.

He has always had women — numerously, sequentially and simultaneously, in the form of family friends, heiresses, socialites, models, actresses, professional acquaintances, colleagues' spouses, party girls, shopgirls and prostitutes — following the youthful discovery that he liked women and they liked him." Perhaps this opener, on its own, is not particularly bracing.

But knowing who "the subject" is makes the difference.

It's John Fitzgerald Kennedy, doomed 35th president of the United States, the man pictured on "American Adulterer's" cover with his hand around the shoulder of his lovely wife as a blur of female faces looks his way.

This is, indeed, a novel, but it is an impeccably researched, tightly drawn one based on a mixture of fact and myth, less a political tale and more an emotional imagining of Kennedy the man, and more specifically, of his libido and its hold on his life.

"Adulterer" is a fascinatingly conceived masterpiece, and it makes Jed Mercurio — the British writer responsible for the medical novel "Bodies" and a BBC series called "Cardiac Arrest"—an author to watch.

He has brought a mighty figure down to the human level, and, through sheer creativity and a lot of reading attempted to enter the mind of one of the most important and complex figures of the 20th century.

(Mercurio's bibliography is a long one, featuring everything from such JFK classics as Seymour Hersh's "Dark Side of Camelot" to former Kennedy mistress Judith Exner's "My Story".) For Mercurio — here acting as psychologist-cum-doctor — there are two indelibly linked holds on the president's life and state of mind: his sexual appetite and his health.

Every moment of the novel somehow leads back to these twin demons, and in doing so, Mercurio raises the ultimate question: Do these things truly matter? In other words, do they affect his ability to make decisions for the country? As Kennedy himself responds to J.

Edgar Hoover, "I shall answer questions on my record in office, for which I'm accountable.

But I decline to respond to questions about my private life.

They are questions no American would ever want to answer, nor should he ever have to answer.

I claim that same right." (I can visualize Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton nodding tearfully in agreement.) Mercurio does not make his thoughts on that question clear, nor should he.

It is up to the reader to determine whether JFK's womanizing and scarily declining health influenced his decision-making, and what one decides is likely indicative of one's own political and moral leanings.

As Mercurio's Kennedy deals with the crises of his three years in office —civil rights battles at the University of Mississippi and beyond, the failed invasion of Cuba, not to mention the Cuban missile crisis and a personal game of one-upsmanship with Nikita Khrushchev — so too is he facing a sexual crisis.

For, as Mercurio tells us early in the novel, despite unquestionably loving his wife and children, JFK has a "conviction that promiscuous sexual relations with consenting partners not his wife are no cause for moral self-recrimination." Sexual climax is so vital to his overall well-being that should he go too long without, he suffers a "delirium of frustration." As one of his doctors, dubbed "Dr.

Feelgood" for his procurement of drugs to combat Kennedy's crippling back pain and other ailments, says, "A subject accustomed to frequent sexual activity may suffer drastic psychological withdrawal.

Concentration and judgment may be severely impaired." So the president sleeps with prostitutes and interns and Marilyn Monroe.

He parties with Frank Sinatra and heroic astronauts.

All the while, his skin is poked with needles and his stomach is bubbling with chemicals.

His body and mind are a combustible stew of vice and illness, worry and pain.

"All his ailments worsen," writes Mercurio.

"Despite stupendously high doses of steroids, his Addison's disease fails to respond, leaving the President permanently listless and nauseated.

Next his thyroid falters: he is lethargic, constipated and hoarse — And all the time his ulcers rage, his bowels blister, his tubes burn and his back buzzes." Near the novel's end, one of his many doctors gravely announces, "I think he's dying." As the fictional Kennedy hurtles recklessly to worsened health and bolder womanizing, Mercurio plants subtle hints of what's to come.

He wisely ignores the various conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's assassination, but he does include hints of the many agendas surrounding the presidency on all sides, from a lip-smacking Hoover to an upset military leadership to whispers of underworld discontent.

Robert and Edward Kennedy are never mentioned, but little John John is, adding a level of poignancy to scenes of Jack playing with his children.

It is impossible to read "American Adulterer" and not think of all that was to come, for Kennedy and his family, and for the country as a whole.

Vietnam is on the horizon ("The Joint Chiefs announce that a plan now exists to conduct a U.

S.-led invasion of North Vietnam starting almost as soon as the next election is won," writes Mercurio), so too is the tumult of the mid-to-late 1960s.

Mercurio also hints at the future of politics, in which no figure who enters the public gaze can assume that a private life will stay private.

Discussing the aftermath of the melancholy Profumo scandal, Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson have a fearful chat, both knowing that the other has dark skeletons in, and out, of the closet.

"A man stands naked in his bedroom window because he can't see anyone looking in," Wilson says to his American counterpart.

"He thinks he's invisible — But people are looking, Jack." They were, indeed, starting to look, and the political and personal landscape would never be the same.

That, in the end, is a window into what Jed Mercurio was hoping to accomplish in "American Adulterer." Since we don't know all the sordid details, and never had to hear the tearful apologies or courtroom dramatics that eventually plagued Jack's brother Teddy, Mercurio is making his own medical diagnosis.

Perhaps he is correct in his assessments of the thoughts, feelings and urges of "the subject." Perhaps not.

But I can say without question that I finally feel like I have an idea of who Jack Kennedy was.

That's more than one usually can gain from a novel, and that's why "American Adulterer" is a triumphant kick to the heart and mind, and an unforgettable vision of a man we will never really know.

Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo critic.

FICTION AmericanAdulterer By Jed Mercurio Simon and Schuster 352 pages, $25 Reader comments There on this article.

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