Book Review: Carolyn See Reviews 'American Adulterer' by Jed Mercurio

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 17, 2009


By Jed Mercurio

Simon & Schuster. 339 pp. $25

"American Adulterer," a novel based loosely on John Kennedy's days in the White House, purports to examine our former president's adulterous career. But people looking for pornography will be disappointed unless they're satisfied with medical pornography, which is another genre altogether. The narrative is set up as a faux case study, with the character based on Kennedy repeatedly referred to as "the subject." This places the author, who "trained as a doctor," in the omniscient position of being the medical authority who knows everything and doesn't shrink from sharing his opinions.

But the medical narrator seems to have come from the 19th or early-20th century, owing a considerable debt to Havelock Ellis, whose vast work tended to define sex -- either its absence or presence -- as troublesome pathology.

Sex -- according to our way of thinking now -- is perceived, for the most part, as a healthy activity. Celibacy, too, is often seen as a viable choice. Not so for the narrator, however, or the fictional president. Too little sex, for a man, could lead to headache, anxiety, indigestion and possible stroke. Too much sex and you might become a pervert or a sex fiend. Damned if you did; damned if you didn't.

The sentences in this novel seem endless, averaging just three or four to a page. It's as if a student in remedial English had entered into a shotgun marriage with Marcel Proust. Example: "Sexual toxins circulate in spiraling abundance, causing headaches, nausea and muscle spasms, and the occasional sight of a physically appealing woman releases a spigot somewhere inside that pours more of the effluent into the subject's system, inflaming his already inflamed genital tubing, so that his prostate surgeon prescribes him a short course of antibiotics to ward off infection of the urinary tract, while Dr. Feelgood advises him the best remedy is ejaculation, not through facile masturbation, but through the process of full sexual intercourse with a stimulating partner, as the only certain method of releasing the suppurating juices that have been accumulating for weeks without remission."

And here is the president in Beverly Hills, with only the Secret Service for company, about to give a speech: "The President is wary of being seen in public to eat a restricted diet, so he consumes the steak just as everyone else does, though in this case he suffers a beef intolerance, which exacerbates his abdominal discomfort. The speech goes over well, and he attempts to relax with a cigar and a whiskey sufficiently to propel himself through the customary glad-handing and arm-twisting, then the Secret Service conveys him to his hotel, two agents taking their stations outside his suite, while he suffers on the toilet for forty-five minutes. Afterward the President lies on the bed and consumes his nightly regimen of hormone replacers, painkillers, muscle relaxants, germ killers, bowel movers and stomach pacifiers, till his blood simmers with chemicals." But after a while the president can't take his physical discomfort anymore, and, over the objections of a Secret Service agent ("I have to report to my captain, Mr. President. Visitors to the presidential suite must be given security clearance prior to arrival and that takes time, as you know, sir."), he succeeds in enticing a fictional Marilyn Monroe up to his room: "He glances at her blond hair and the heft of her breasts, and soon after he coughs his poison into her."

"American Adulterer" goes on like that and brings up some interesting questions: Was Marilyn Monroe sewn into that famous birthday party dress, or did it have a zipper, as the author contends? Did the president have three willing interns whom he called -- because he couldn't remember their names -- Fiddle, Faddle and Fuddle? Were Frank Sinatra's genitals the clear winner in an informal contest between him and the president? Did the president make jokes about the difference between an intern and a turd? Did J. Edgar Hoover actually say, "Mr. President, you, sir, are an immoral man, and you must resign"? Did the president really suffer from bouts of "scorching diarrhea," and if so, where does that show up in the scholarship? (The author's bibliography is sketchy at best -- 15 volumes by my count, with three of them about President Bill Clinton.) And assuming Kennedy's diarrhea was "scorching," what business is it of ours anyway? Last but not least, who was it who coined the phrase "a thousand points of light"? The author suggests it was Eisenhower. I could have sworn it was George Herbert Walker Bush (and that Dukakis grumbled, "I don't even know what he's talking about"). Who knows? Who knows?

The rules for defining pornography changed in the '70s, but before then, they used to be: 1. Does the work go beyond customary limits of candor? 2. Is the work utterly without redeeming social value? And 3. Is the predominant appeal to the prurient interest?

As a former certified expert in the field (I've testified in well over a hundred pornography trials, both for the defense and the prosecution), I think I can say this book fits the definition on probably two counts. It can also be argued that certain kinds of pornography meet a need in our society. But, reader, be warned: If you're looking for steamy sex, you're not going to find it -- except for repetitions of quaintly racy words like "concubine," "fornication," "fornicator." There isn't any sex here. It's all just "suppurating juices."

See can be reached at

Sunday in Outlook

-- The men who went to the moon 40 years ago.

-- The castaways who inspired Shakespeare.

-- The birth of modern politics.

-- Henry Ford's unrealized utopia.

-- And the East and the West make whoopee.

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