Audacity is a useful, but unstable element in the fictional equation: When it succeeds, we can see the familiar anew, often from unexpected yet edifying angles; when it fails, the results can range from the merely ridiculous to the frankly distasteful.
English writer Jed Mercurio's new novel "American Adulterer" -- a daring attempt to imagine President John F. Kennedy's inner life -- too often strays into that latter category. That's unfortunate, because Mercurio has an obvious facility for constructing an accessible fiction of ideas and reflection. In this novel, though, the ideas are both arduously convoluted and essentially banal, and the reflection seldom raises its head above the muck of prurience. The result is a book that, ultimately, fails on its own terms.
Part of the problem is historical. For all its ambition, "American Adulterer" manages to give an Oval Office that was filled with consequential events all the claustrophobic charm of a sick room. That office's occupant's inner landscape is a dreary, self-absorbed wasteland of compulsion and complaint. Trained as a physician, Mercurio has chosen the omniscient third-person as his narrative voice, presumably to give the story line the clinical detachment of a medical report. Thus he begins: "The subject is an American citizen holding high 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. . . . "
Fair enough, but time and again, the narrative veers into eccentric reflections on marriage and fidelity and, worse, oddly shallow moralizing. At the same time, Mercurio's re-creation of Kennedy's inner life is reductive to the point of vulgarity. While we know from historians, like Robert Dallek, that Kennedy was much sicker than anyone realized, anyone who has known high achievers who overcame disabilities or chronic illnesses also knows that their lives are characterized by denial and minimization of their conditions -- not a preoccupation with them.
As far as Kennedy's erotic activities go, anyone who tries to imagine the precise character of somebody else's sex life or marriage is asking for trouble.
Moreover, if you're going to take the sort of liberties that Mercurio -- by his own admission -- does, you ought not to get as many things wrong as he does. Marilyn Monroe did not kill herself because John Kennedy broke off their affair and frustrated her fantasies of becoming first lady. J. Edgar Hoover did not confront Kennedy with detailed dossiers on his sex life and demand that he resign from office, nor did the president ever voluntarily consent to interrogation on that topic by the FBI director's "special investigator."
The president never would have been asked, as he is by one of his conquests, where he stood on the women's movement, nor would he have shared a post-coital joint with her in the Lincoln bedroom. Both feminism and ubiquitous pot were some years in the future.
Anyone who has studied the transcripts of Kennedy's magnificent leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis will be struck by the preposterous notion that, when the first lady visits the Oval Office to congratulate him, he hides the intern who has just given him oral sex in an adjoining study -- then, he conflates in his mind the world's escape from nuclear destruction with his own avoidance of marital destruction.
Frankly, constructing such a scene is not taking liberties; it's giving offense.
Mercurio has consciously reached back into history's middle distance for an example that addresses an issue continually thrown up by our media-saturated culture of celebrity. When it comes to politics, does the line between public and private still exist? More important, do the actions of a person's intimate life necessarily predict anything about their conduct in public office?
"I wanted to write about a character who was outwardly an admirable person, but possessed a dark secret," Mercurio said in a recent interview. He ultimately settled on Kennedy because "I was interested in setting up a stark contrast between a protagonist's moral successes and failures, so that I could set up a question to pose to the reader: How much does one's private life matter if he or she is otherwise doing good works? They can judge for themselves."
After the tragic death of their prematurely born son, Patrick, the president makes a pre-dawn flight to be with his wife. As Mercurio imagines it: "He struggles to comprehend why something he loved so dearly should be taken away. Then, in the first rays of sunrise, he recalls the babies lost that he never spared a thought for. A lifetime of fornication, while he takes for granted those who love him, is finally being punished."
So, children die because their parents sin? That's pretty tough old stuff -- at the hands of who or what is this rough justice meted out? The God of history, karma or the Deists' Providence gone amok?
The author introduces his novel with a quotation from Jacqueline Kennedy: "Men are such a combination of good and evil." Are we really supposed to judge her husband's frenetic sexual activity as an "evil" to be expiated by child sacrifice? If so, why does the narrative portray a man in the grip of virtually irresistible physical compulsion? Perhaps these are questions Mercurio intends for readers to "judge for themselves."
Late in the story, Kennedy's painful back condition, mostly the result of injuries sustained in World War II, is made dramatically worse when a female campaign worker to whom he makes an unwelcome sexual advance shoves him off a sofa. The new injuries force him to wear a stiff back brace that, according to Mercurio, prevents him from ducking to avoid his assassin's second, killing rifle shot: "This man wrecked his back saving a wounded comrade, but this is only part of the story; the condition was exacerbated by his philandering in a hotel room in El Paso, and for these two inseparable reasons he wears a brace that holds his head high when otherwise he would be able to duck the next shot."
So, Kennedy died because he served his country and because he cheated on his wife. How are readers supposed to "judge for themselves" the implications of that equivocal verdict?
They can't, because the way in which Mercurio has framed his book's central question is, in both fictive and moral terms, portentous nonsense. Jack Kennedy was no more killed for either his heroism or his sex life than Ronald Reagan was shot because of his steadfastness against the Soviet Union while his economic policies injured the poor. Kennedy was assassinated and Reagan was wounded simply because lunatics got clear shots at them.
Mercurio is a writer of some talent, but "American Adulterer" is an overreaching and, in every important sense, vulgar novel.