‘Wheelchair-bound, paralysed, incontinent and impotent’ – American Adulterer by Jed Mercurio

Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer is a very clinical, somewhat distant, look at John F. Kennedy and his Presidency. It follows JFK through office, via his numerous affairs, to that fateful day in November. With it, we are presented with a man who is a slave to his addiction and Mercurio places these trysts at the very centre of a rather unusual novel.

Mercurio’s narration is detached and methodical, offering little to no judgement on the man. We are provided with Kennedy’s most intimate medical details, exposing a vast contrast to the image usually presented of a virile and fit young President and leader of the free world. “Fatigue, weight loss, abdominal pain, aching muscles, headaches, abnormal skin pigmentation, low blood pressure, nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting, weakness, constipation, muscle cramps and joint pains” are just some of the ailments he suffers through.

These ailments create an insight into the drive in Kennedy; that of a man running out of time. “On days like these he recognizes the possibility that it might not be many years before he’s wheelchair-bound, paralysed, incontinent and impotent, and given that he cannot alter the future, he must derive as much as possible from the present in regards to the pleasures of physical capability.” Of course we know that his future is very much uncertain and the tension builds as the novel progresses.

It is this very physical pressure and the pressures of office that fuels JFK’s passionate desires. His womanising and the deplorable treatment of women are contradicted with a desire for good; to not only better the United States but also the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis, equal rights for all and a ban on nuclear testing are all contradicted with a string of women who he uses for his own needs. The President’s powerful position in office enables him to be told what he wants to hear, with his many doctors prescribing to him the need for a sexual ‘release’ to aid his medical condition. Instead we see that he is a man unable and unwilling to overcome his addictions. Perhaps the most extraordinary part is quite how a man with such a vast list of medical ailments managed to have such a complicated and frequent sex life.

Yet despite the level of intimacy we are given into Kennedy’s thought process and physical ailments, there remains the level of detachment in the novel. Many of the characters are not named and only referred to by their title or place in history. ‘Our First Man in Space’, Hollywood stars and other figures are named as history remembers them. Yet oddly Kennedy’s speeches are replicated almost in full which seemed unnecessary, as these are already well documented and failed to add anything to what we know about the man.

Ultimately, American Adulterer suffers from being too cold and distant, and while it remains a fascinating insight into the thought process of the man, frequently JFK is quite simply unlikeable. The detached emotional response of the narrator matches that of the ‘adulterer’, and his lack of responsibility regarding Monroe’s suicide is frankly deplorable.

Any Cop?: Despite its flaws, American Adulterer remains a riveting read and an interesting mix of novel and biography but Mercurio’s style will no doubt jar with many readers.

Rob Chilver

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