Elevate Difference

American Adulterer

I’ll admit I am neither a friend of celebrity culture or the particular brand of it that centers on the Kennedys. I am, however, interested in sexual politics and thus in the normative institutions of marriage and monogamy and the hardly less institutionalized behaviors of male bonding. In many ways Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer is a riposte to Ruth Francisco’s The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which a Publisher’s Weekly review described as a “fictionalized peek behind Camelot [that] will satisfy only prurient interests.” Both novels are understandable constructs that allow conjecture from the historical record while allowing the authors and their publishers to evade the consequence of potential libel suits. Although the reviewer read only excerpts of the Francisco novel, hers is more novelistic and even literary than Mercurio’s.

American Adulterer might be described as an apologia for habitual, compulsive adultery during the time a character—called "the Subject" by the omniscient authorial voice speaking in present tense—spent as President of the United States, with flashbacks to early periods of his life sufficient to shed light on the behavior as exhibited in the White House under conditions of scrutiny and Secret Service security. A medical doctor, the author also regales us with clinical details of the subject’s multiple maladies—adrenal insufficiency, a painful back, gastrointestinal disease, allergies, and the side effects of steroid therapy. A sickly youth, the subject nonetheless served in the military and was a war hero, but by the time he reached the White House is poor health, managed by a team of physicians and a rogue Dr. Feelgood. A back brace is fingered as a contributing cause to his shooting, proving lethal in the final pages.

An account of how compulsive sexuality can jeopardize careers of men, especially powerful men, is a useful corrective for feminists more commonly concerned with the destabilizing effects romance and sexual obsession can have on women, with dangerous consequences to their educations and careers. As the narrative proceeds from ejaculation to ejaculation (and from bowel movement to bowel movement), readers who are after more than prurience will become aware of the vast protective apparatus that props up public figures—and I mean more than the Secret Service—the advisers and administrative infrastructure on which they depend and which have a minute by minute view of one’s conduct of life. How these constrain the subject’s behavior is a timely reminder for those who look to a particular individual as a hero of reform. Knowledge about someone’s predilection for fellatio under a desk is not the only leverage outside interests have on a political figure. And for those, like me, not particularly attracted to political figures, the familiar rationalizations for male sexual behavior suggest the continuing need for further explication of sexual politics, a half-century after these fictional facts took place.

Written by: Frances Chapman, September 23rd 2009