This novel is unputdownable. Much of what makes it compulsive reading, however, is its voyeuristic quality. Although written in prose of lapidary concision and brilliance, it is literary fiction’s answer to a Sunday tabloid, which is all part of the author’s plan.
Mercurio’s subject is the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, from Jackie’s dress bills to Marilyn’s overdose, the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban missile crisis and the fateful motorcade through Dallas. But what Mercurio has done with the legend is something very clever. A doctor himself, he makes Kennedy’s health the focus of the novel. Stretching a point, perhaps, he casts the president’s libido as one more in a list of ailments which included chronic back trouble and Addison’s disease. By juxtaposing accounts of Kennedy’s ordeals with his health and the women in his life, with transcriptions from his speeches and accounts of his war heroism, his actions on Cuba, civil rights, or space exploration, Mercurio leads us to question the relationship between the public and the private man. From there it is a short leap to the realisation that, today, when the press can plead public interest as an excuse to demolish a public figure’s reputation on a whim, Kennedy could never have been elected.
There are many ways to interpret a public life, but Mercurio leaves the reader in little doubt of his belief in the importance of Kennedy’s presidency. He implicitly questions whether we would still be here at all had it not been for Kennedy’s willingness to override his military advisers and engage in a direct, personal correspondence with Khrushchev in 1961. Which leads back to the bigger question underlying his narrative. What do we want from our public servants and what happens when we get the politicians we deserve? This is a deeply serious novel, one we should all read and be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves.