Tuesday 28 April 2009

'appetite comes with the eating'

American Adulterer
by Jed Mercurio

As befits his name Jed Mercurio is something of a mercurial writer. From his medical background he carved first a TV series, Cardiac Arrest, which attempted to provide a slightly more adult medical drama for the viewing masses, a novel, Bodies, which took things even further and was subsequently turned into a TV series itself, then out of nowhere we had Ascent, his triumphant alternative vision of the space race which made me feel like a boy again and very nearly made it onto my books-of-the-year list last year. American Adulterer sticks to the same period of history but brings us back to this side of the Iron Curtain and is a very different kind of book altogether: a forensic look at the presidency of JFK as filtered through his philandering.

That title means that it joins a long list of books and films which seem to claim to tap into something which is uniquely part of the American psyche.(James Ellroy used American Tabloid for his own JFK novel and then of course we have American Pastoral, American Beauty, American Psycho, American Gangster...please add your own favourites). It feels somehow appropriately mythical for this examination of America's most mythical president but Mercurio brings his medical sensibilities and language to the fore to puncture the myth of Camelot and the vitality and youth of a President who was beset by ill health throughout his time in the White House. From the opening sentence Mercurio places a distance between us and 'the subject' as he is referred to throughout. The language comes from a report or observation, listing for example 'a full picture of his constellation of miseries'.

Addison's disease, thyroid deficiency, gastric reflux, gastritis, peptic ulcer, ulcerative colitis, prostatitis, urethritis, chronic urinary tract infections, skin infections, fevers of unknown origin, lumbar vertebral collapse, osteoporosis of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the neck, osteoarthritis of the shoulder, high cholesterol, allergic rhinitis, allergic sinusitis and asthma.

That's almost as much fun to type as it must have been to endure. The subjects routine is a catalogue of injections, pills and treatments but at the very centre of this is his other condition for '...he would include his sexual proclivities within the spectrum of his physical stigmata. He can no more dispel his compulsively active libido than he can wish hormones from his adrenal glands'. The man who famously claimed he got headaches if he went without sex for three days is a slave to his addiction and against the backdrop of one of the most eventful periods in American history Mercurio places the trysts right at the centre.

The television series the West Wing became famous (and later parodied) for its signature shot of President and aides walking the corridors of power at pace with files and policy being thrown around like spirit bottles at a cocktail bar. Included in the mix for JFK are assignations with women he can barely keep trace of. The secret service personnel dub two regulars 'Fiddle and Faddle' (to be joined later by 'Fuddle') and even the President himself ends up using those appellations himself. The first names of famous movie stars are casually dropped and his relationship with Marilyn Monroe is particularly colourful. Even the Queen doesn't escape his gaze (but 'so aristocratically buttoned up he couldn't imagine going to bed with her'). What the book lacks is any actual sex. It might seem extraordinary to choose sex as a subject and not actually write any, but Mercurio is creating a portrait of pathological sexual release. With his physical ailments the subject is really only capable of receiving rather than giving and the enjoyment comes not from the act itself, which is more of a means of alleviating his symptoms, but in the chase beforehand, each new conquest like 'unwrapping a present'. His commitment to this course is chilling, particularly in two instances; the first his decision to continue partying on his yacht even whilst his wife suffers a still-birth, the second his reaction to the death of Monroe.

The suicide does not imbue the subject with guilt, nor should it. That particular weakness proves utterly destructive to the philanderer. He decides to regard this tragedy as a test of his womanizing prowess...the subject appreciates from experience that periodically one is penetrated at the most interior shell of one's compassion, and the womanizer who has thus far complacently deflected the suffering of a scorned lover or jealous wife comes to realize the ultimate demand of his chosen path. He must play the sociopath, unless he has the good or ill fortune, depending upon your viewpoint, of being one already.

Mercurio can't resist including everything eventful from the period. Some of this is successful; JFK's guilt over the Bay of Pigs fiasco is well drawn and the handling of the Cuban missile crisis is edge of the seat stuff, but the inclusion of so much speech material seems unnecessary when the words are so familiar to us and there isn't anything new said about their formulation. There are some pretty clear references to contemporary history with phrases like 'enemy combatants' and the spectre of being '45 minutes from destruction'. The real surprise is that a book which maintains such a professional distance throughout (and that from a subject who behaves so callously and shallowly) is able to conclude with such an emotional climax. The fallout from the premature birth of his son Patrick is beautifully handled and the one thing we have always known about the subject's story is how it will end.

Mercurio may have hamstrung himself slightly with the conceit of this book, preventing it from really taking off in the same way Ascent did but he still manages some great set pieces and also pinpoints the moment when the private lives of politicians were identified by the media as potential fodder for the rest of us.


leyla sanai 13 June 2010 at 11:31  

I haven't read either of Mercurio's last two books, William, and the subject matter of American Adulterer put me off, but your clear, informative review and the quotes have piqued my interest. The clinical way Mercurio lists his subject's ailments is paradoxically involving, triggering the kind of curiosity that a salaciously written, gossipy account wouldn't.It's fascinating to read about JFK's litany of ill health and that he may have enjoyed the thrill more than the physical liaisons themselves.

I thought Bodies was extremely powerful in its breaking of medical taboos - revealing the secrets of the medical profession would ruin any career in medicine - witness the move to Australia of the Bristol heart unit whistleblower - and I was totally gripped by the TV series of both Bodies and Cardiac Arrest (conflict of interest admission - I worked as a medical advisor on the latter and knew Mercurio socially for a while.)I didn't read Ascent, again because the purported subject matter didn't immediately appeal, but you speak highly of it too, so again I may reconsider.

William Rycroft 14 June 2010 at 12:19  

I loved Ascent (as you'll see here) but in very Boys Own kind of way so I can see why you might be put off. I'd still recommend that over this one, which is a bit dry and never really engages in the same way. I saw a bit of both medical series, do you have a medical background (or present) then, Leyla?

leyla sanai 14 June 2010 at 13:25  

Hi William. I do have a medical background, I did medicine then worked as a physician for a couple of years and did the MRCP post grad exams then got drawn to intensive care for which you have to be a consultant anaesthetist in Scotland, so did anaesthetics, FRCA, etc and became a consultant anaesthetist at Glasgow's Western Infirmary. Had to give up b/c of scleroderma which is an auto-immune illness which has caused lots of problems and requires every second week spent in hospital for days. Still, giving up medicine gives me time to concentrate on reading and writing.
As often happens with TV adaptations, the TV drama of Bodies was different from the book in some ways. The book was extremely potent but made the central relationship very sex-based and gritty (they were both often sweaty and smelly from working long shifts, etc) rather than any meeting of minds. Unusually, I actually preferred the TV version because it seemed less 'laddy' because of that. Still, Mercurio will have had a lot of input in the adaptation too as he takes an active producer role in the filming of his books. And the central themes - the way the conservative medical hierarchy covers up incompetence in consultants and the way whistle-blowing is punished, were, I thought, blazingly powerful in both the book and the drama.

William Rycroft 15 June 2010 at 00:39  

Thank you for that response Leyla. I'm sorry to hear about one career being affected so much by your illness but great to see you so positive about what it has allowed you to do.

As for Bodies, I'm ashamed to admit that I was put off watching it any committed way by my actorly prejudices (ie I have an aversion to both Max Beesley and Keith Allen) but maybe I should have given it more of a chance.

leyla sanai 15 June 2010 at 00:46  

How funny! I liked Max Beesley in Bodies; he had that anxious intensity coupled with youth that the part called for. As for Keith Allen, while I think he would severely try my patience as a partner, I like watching him on screen. In fact he lived up to the part he played in Bodies - a louche old lush - because the woman who played the blonde junior doctor at whom he made constant passes ended up pregnant by him. That's method acting for you.

William Rycroft 15 June 2010 at 01:06  

I'm afraid footage of Max Beesley's past as a percussion musician may have put me off. Once you've seen his conga playing face then you feel you've seen too much -a bit like those smelly and sweaty sex sessions.

As for Keith Allen, well, I can only offer profanities so I shall keep schtum.

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