['the subject' of the book is a president of the USA in the early 1960s]
The problem in those days was the creeping realization that he could never have enough premarital sex just as one can never eat a big enough meal to fast without eventually getting hungry. He’d been accustomed to so much that, paradoxically, he might have adjusted better had the opposite been true, since he wouldn’t have missed it so very much. Married men who don’t miss other partners must not have been particularly interested in women in the first place…
A few weeks into their marriage, after the gourmet bingeing of honeymoon had slumped into the TV dinners of monogamy, the subject’s attraction toward other women visibly returned and she responded with a cold, possessive outrage that so infuriated him he made his natural needs more manifest, at parties flirting with other women, on one occasion removing a girl for a quickie that narrowly escaped his wife’s discovery. He maintained this strategy of insidious humiliation until her response was no longer controlled and possessive, but shattered and defeated. This was her punishment for failure to comprehend the potency of his urges. He made the point in order to establish a modus vivendi for their marriage. One will had to overcome the other or else they would have split. And he never felt guilty; once a man starts on that road, who knows where he’ll stop?
commentary: This is a strange, compelling and unlikely book. Jed Mercurio is one of the UK’s leading TV writers, and usually writes about doctors or the police. It is not clear why he decided to take on a fictionalized account of the Presidency of John F Kennedy.
I love to read about the Kennedys (there are other posts about them on the blog here and here and here), and this book is a corker – I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it before. It was mentioned on my friend Col’s Criminal Library blog, and I downloaded it almost immediately, and read it in no time at all.
It’s written in a very unusual style, as if for a psychological report, and Mercurio usually refers to JFK as ‘the subject’. But this is not as distancing as it sounds, and the book is very gripping as it describes important movements in the Cold War, and the President’s relations with other celebrities, and his endless need for women. You have to know a fair bit about him to start with, it’s not a book for beginners, as characters are dropped into the story with no introduction. (There’s even a tiny bit part for ‘Bill from Arkansas’).
Usually when I read fictionalized versions of history I end up anxious to know what is true and what is not, and wish that I had read a straight account of the times. But when a novel transcends that, you feel you actually learn more about the times than just the facts. American Adulterer does that, and one comparable book is, coincidentally, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld about a Laura Bush-like figure. Laurie Graham wrote a very insightful novel about the Kennedys. (And Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel does the same job for a much older story…). Mercurio flat out tries to imagine the thinking and morals of the President, and he makes you feel he succeeded.
The book makes clear JFK’s appalling medical problems, and suggests that his manic philandering was going to result in Clinton-esque troubles (and see below) – and that’s if he had survived his many illnesses. It also suggests that JFK should have been able to duck when shot at, but was unable to move because of the back brace he had to wear.
The sexual antics are very off-putting, because so soulless and selfish. The author makes the point that:
In the past, men in his position never had to consider how they conducted themselves behind closed doors, for they knew they would be judged on what they delivered to the people. The only exception would be acts of criminal depravity, and, as far as he is concerned, fornicating with consenting adult females does not constitute depravity.Which while true is no defence. We are used to hearing a slight defence of ‘morals of the time’, but this was abusive and creepy by anyone’s standards.
He counts five minutes till the next appointment. “Be quick,” he says, hurriedly making room for her under the desk.This is one of the points at which the story of JFK is morphing into the story of Bill Clinton – the book is most definitely a novel, items are added. Some reviews say Mercurio is ‘drawing parallels’ between the two presidents in such scenes, but I think he is making his own picture, and adding items from the Clinton era, including a straightforward description of what constitutes ‘sexual relations’.
Mercurio does a great job of explaining the politics of the time (although there is the odd fact that Bobby Kennedy doesn’t feature in the book at all), and his background as a doctor gives the medical details conviction. And he does an even better job of persuading you that he knows how the Kennedy marriage worked, that yes, these were the ways that two people made each other very unhappy. The story of Jackie’s late pregnancy includes this:
The First Lady withdraws from Washington life to assume the position of Cape Cod’s magazine-reading smoker-in-residence, where she can keep her blood pressure down and her swollen ankles up, returning once every week or so to attend the more glamorous social events in the White House diary.--- and you can read between the lines about her reluctance to be a First Lady (spelled out in this blogpost here) and the fact that she left the White House every weekend possible, from Thursday to Monday. And that her being with JFK in Dallas was unprecedented: it was the first time she had ventured west of Viriginia since the Inauguration, and she did not ever accompany JFK on formal domestic visits as the President’s wife. (I find those to be the two most astonishing facts in the whole real-life Kennedy story).
A sad story, enthrallingly told, and one that makes you wonder about the alternative history…
One of the best books I’ve read this year.
Kennedy wedding picture, by the marvellous Toni Frissell, is from the Library of Congress.
Jackie accompanying her husband after he has spinal surgery, 1954, also LOC.
Official White House picture of Jackie Kennedy, also LOC.