Fictional president a hard act to swallow

2009-08-26 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

American Adulterer

Jed Mercurio

Jonathan Cape

THIS is a fictional account of a man referred to throughout the book as “the subject”. He has multiple health problems, is a family man with a beautiful wife and two beloved children, and he is a compulsive “fornicator”. Oh yes, he is also the president of the United States — John F. Kennedy, to be precise.

British writer Jed Mercurio qualified as a medical doctor before turning to writing. Under the ostensible detachment of the clinician, the narrator reports on Kennedy’s myriad and serious health problems.

Ranging from crippling back pain to Addison’s disease, Kennedy’s troubles are relentlessly itemised and ­described in almost obscene detail. The reader becomes as thoroughly acquainted with Kennedy’s frequent and explosive bouts of diarrhoea, as with his habitual need for sexual ­release, which he apparently believes removes “toxic accumulations”.

The “subject” seeks such release with any woman deemed attractive and available, including socialites, prostitutes and White House interns. Even his having sex with movie goddess Marilyn Monroe is an unerotic purging: “He glances at her blond hair and the heft of her breasts, and soon after he coughs his poison into her.”

Fortunately for the reader, the “subject” also had other matters on his mind, matters potentially even more toxic and explosive, such as the Cuban missile crisis. But Mercurio — lazily — covers some of the more ­significant international political events by quoting Kennedy’s speeches at length. Although interesting in themselves, the speeches are clumsily inserted into a novel that does not succeed in creating a character that is more than a bizarre case study.

The authorial voice is all over the place and the tone uneven, but I did not spend much time speculating as to who the narrator might be because I soon ceased to care.

And rather than wondering how Kennedy had the courage to prevail over such sickness and pain to be an effective and charismatic president, instead I could hardly wait for the ­assassin’s bullet that would finally end his misery — and mine.

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