Clark Collis
July 08, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

American Adulterer

Current Status
In Season
Jed Mercurio

We gave it a B+

American Adulterer offers a fictionalized, but well-researched, account of how JFK conducted himself while president. Or should that be ”misconducted”? It opens with an overview of Kennedy’s thinking on the subject of adultery (spoiler alert: He was all for it) and proceeds to detail his sexual liaisons with movie stars, prostitutes, and a White House intern whom he ”cracks open” to celebrate the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Why doesn’t he just reach for a bottle of champagne? Because alcohol is bad for his health. Jed Mercurio’s character, like the real Kennedy, suffers from a range of severe ailments, as most of the world first learned thanks to Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography An Unfinished Life. The novel often leans on Dallek’s work to construct a portrait of someone whose boudoir antics seem doubly incredible given that Kennedy’s damaged back meant that he sometimes couldn’t even get into bed unaided.

However, Mercurio’s Kennedy is no bestial caricature, and the section in which the world’s most powerful man can do nothing to prevent the death of his prematurely born son is heartbreaking. The book also repeatedly invites readers to compare JFK, who was able to go about his business unhindered by a prying press, with Bill Clinton, who was not so lucky. The result may not be as timely as Curtis Sittenfeld’s similarly named American Wife, which concerned a very Laura Bushesque First Lady, or as compelling as Don DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald novel, Libra (few books are). But it is far more than just the sum of its subject’s underperforming and/or overworked parts. B+

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