Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book


Rate this book
Jonathan Ascher, an acclaimed 1960s radical writer and cultural hero, has been dead for thirty years.
            When a would-be biographer approaches Ascher’s widow Martha, she delves for the first time into her husband’s papers and all the secrets that come tumbling out of them. She finds journals that begin as a wisecracking chronicle of life at the fringes of the New York literary scene, then recount Ascher’s sexual adventures in the pre-Stonewall gay underground and the social upheavals that led to his famous book “JD.” As Martha reads on, she finds herself in a long-distance conversation with her dead husband, fighting with him again about their rocky marriage and learning about the unseen tragedy in her own apartment that ended with the destruction of their son, Mickey. Mickey comes to life in the space between Jonathan and Martha’s conflicting portraits of him, while Martha and the biographer tangle over the continued relevance of Jonathan’s politics and his unfulfilled vision of a nation remade. Martha learns about herself, finally, through her confrontation with a man who will not let her go, even in death.
            Mark Merlis’s JD is a brilliant and harrowing view of a half century of the American experiment, acted out on a small stage by three people who cannot find a way—neither sex nor touch nor words—to speak their love for one another.

Best Books of 2015: Fiction, Open Letters Monthly

Finalist, Gay Fiction, Lambda Literary Award

Finalist, Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, Publishing Triangle

Best books for public & secondary school libraries from university presses, American Library Association

“Many years after a ’60s New York writer's death, his widow confronts their tumultuous marriage and private identities through his journals. . . . JD’s most masterful element is its treatment of these two characters, both of whom spent their lives groping for contentment like one trying to find a light switch in a darkened room. A great writer offers not just tight prose but also insight, a series of probing questions that extend from the fictional world into the real one. JD asks who its characters were, and in doing so, forces the reader to confront the intricate and fascinating politics of identity.”—Shelf Awareness for Readers, *starred review
“A truly impressive work of literary fiction, JD documents author Mark Merlis as an extraordinary novelist able to deftly craft a complex plot and populate it with a roster of inherently fascinating characters and memorable events. The result is an entertaining and engaging read that will linger in the mind long after the book is finished. Very highly recommended for both community and academic library literary fiction collections.”—Midwest Book Review/Reviewer’s Bookwatch

“The fantastic JD (U. of Wisconsin), by acclaimed gay writer Mark Merlis (American Studies), is the writer's first novel in a dozen years. It's told in two voices. The first is that of the late gay writer Jonathan Ascher, and we hear from him through his journals. The second belongs to his widow Martha, who learns more about Jonathan than she ever imagined while reading the journals after agreeing to help a biographer of her late husband.”—Gregg Shapiro, Bay Area Reporter

272 pages, Hardcover

First published March 24, 2015

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Mark Merlis

6 books34 followers
Mark Merlis is an American writer and health policy analyst. He became an independent consultant in 2001, writing papers for government agencies and for organizations such as AARP, the American Cancer Society, and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Born in Framingham, Massachusetts and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Merlis attended Wesleyan University and Brown University. He subsequently took a job with the Maryland Department of Health to support himself while writing. In 1987, he took a job with the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress as a social legislation specialist, and was involved in the creation of the Ryan White Care Act.

Beginning in the 1990s, Merlis published a series of novels. His first novel about a closeted literature professor in the McCarthy era, American Studies, won the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Literature and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 1995, and his second, An Arrow's Flight, a riff on the Philoctetes myth, set simultaneously in the ancient and modern worlds, won the 1999 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction.

Merlis currently lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his partner Bob, and continues to work as an independent health policy consultant.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
45 (39%)
4 stars
37 (32%)
3 stars
19 (16%)
2 stars
10 (8%)
1 star
4 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews
Profile Image for LenaRibka.
1,419 reviews417 followers
June 1, 2016

5 stars. Anything else would be an understatement.

I am a very emotional person, and I tend to react very emotionally to my books. I know that I tend to react over-enthusiastically to the books I love, and that I tend to overload my reviews with exclamation marks. But this time it is different: even if I adore what I have just read, and even if I’m ready to give it straight away more than 5 stars (if I could), you won’t see any exclamation mark.

I am in a state of quiet admiration for Mark Merlis’ prose. I found the story itself very interesting, educational, intriguing enough and deliciously provocative, but it is THE writing that makes this book an unforgettable reading experience.

JD, a finalist of the 28th Lambda Awards in the category Gay Fiction, is extremely well written. This book is a literary jewel. I LOVE EVERY SINGLE PAGE in it. You can’t even imagine how much I highlighted. Three days have already passed since I finished this book, and I am still not ready to pick up another book. And it means something.

JD is a fictional book, though it may be easily confused with documentary, thanks to a perfect vivid atmosphere of the Sixties

Jonathan Ascher was an important radical thinker, social critic, poet and novelist in the 1960s, but 30 years after his death he is totally forgotten. When Philip Marks, a university professor, occasional writer and openly gay, approaches Martha, Ascher‘s widow, literary executor and custodian, for the permission to write the biography of Jonathan Ascher, and, in this regard, askes her to obtain access to the papers of Dr. Ascher, Martha’s first spontaneous answer is "NO". But this unexpected request brings old memories back, and the longing for the answers to the questions she was afraid to ask herself. She decides that the only way to keep the names of her dead husband and her dead son alive for just one more bit of eternity is to let the biography appear. But before she can hand the papers over to Philip Marks she HAS to go through them by herself. In the library at the School for Liberal Studies, where all Jonathan’s papers were given to and have been stored untouched for 30 years, she discovers among other manuscripts Jonathan’s journals, his diaries of 1964,1966, 1970, 1972, 1973. What were they for, these journals? Can they give her answers to all her questions? Do she really want to know them? She starts to read...

Those journals reveals many secrets. Secrets she always knew but pretended not to notice.
Secrets that she would never learn without reading these journals. With the recovery from the first shock after finishing the first journal comes a dilemma:
If Jonathan wanted to expose his ideas to a new generation of young readers and she chooses to hide these journals would it be protecting or betraying Jonathan?

JD mixes two narratives- the present and the past in the most marvelous way. Two main protagonists, two different first person POVs – Martha, Jonathan’s wife and her thoughts through the prism of her memories and emotional response to Ascher’s journals, and Jonathan himself through his diaries- provoking, rebellious, honest and very alive. Two different persons, two different worlds, two different epochs make this novel a colorful, varied, exciting and eventful read.

It is a book with a big discussion potential. I really want many of my friends read it, so that we can talk about it after.

Was Ascher’s demand for political and social freedom just a desperate desire for sexual freedom he couldn't get being trapped in this marriage and in this time period? Who is to blame for what happened to Mickey Ascher? The Sixties and their revolution in social norms? Historical circumstances? The unhappy marriage of his parents? Why did they stay together?

Why why why why...

Only when I finished this book, I realized what it was about, and this realizing (as well as the ending itself) hit me like a thunderstorm in a quiet May night. I finished it late in the night, yes, because I could not put it down, and I slipped away from the bedroom to vent my emotions without waking my husband.

I am still thinking about it, 3 days after finishing it, and I’m still not able to pick up a new read. And I'm still in this state of deep and silent admiration for Mark Merlis' writing skills.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.(I promised, no exclamation mark)
Profile Image for Doug.
1,933 reviews667 followers
April 9, 2021
Beautifully written and structured book, emotionally satisfying, and Merlis does two VERY difficult things here brilliantly: One: the book is told via two very different characters - Martha, a 75 year old widow looking back over her life with an iconic 60's radical/author - and the journals of said author written between 1964-1973. Most authors I have read FAIL utterly in creating two separate styles in such a case, and their writing all tends to sound exactly the same, but not here - Merlis nails this task utterly and seemingly effortlessly.

Secondly, very, very rarely do you get a male author speaking in the voice of a female character - and again, it is usually dismally lacking in verisimilitude. Here, Martha is not only astonishingly real, but one of the most unique female characters in ANY genre. Well done, Mr. Merlis, well done!

PS... on a side note: not to be elitist, but WHY is this novel published by a small University press, rather than being published and promoted by a major publishing house, as it surely deserves? Makes you bemoan the state of modern American publishing... which lavishes big advances and myriad ads on absolute dreck, but does not bother to publish substantial fiction such as this.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books216 followers
December 13, 2021
Mark Merlis is an amazing writer, and as always his novels are smart and thought-provoking. JD has a couple of issues (maybe only one issue). Much of the text is presented as a "journal" and the font pretends to be from a typewriter. This does not lend itself to easy reading. I found it a challenge.

The real issue, perhaps, is that "Martha's" voice in the text and "Jonathan's" voice in the journal entries were not easily distinguished, and so they required this font gimmick to signal to the reader who was speaking. To my ear, Martha sounded just like Jonathan except she did not talk about gay sex.

On the other hand, because these two characters were married to each other for such a long time, perhaps their personalities did achieve a fair amount of overlap.

Overall, another serious and (somewhat disturbing) major achievement from a gifted writer.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 13 books121 followers
September 26, 2017
What's to become of a deceased writer's legacy when his estate's executor is his widow? And what happens when a gay professor inquires about his papers, particularly some never-read diaries penned by her philandering dead closeted gay husband, the once-famous author?

This is only the outset of Merlis' fourth (and sadly last) novel. The layers of confessional 1950s and '60s sex tales and betrayals in author Jonathan Ascher's diaries reveal hidden secrets that make Martha, his widow, question whether his life should be examined in a scholarly book. What part of her connection to him will be excised? What hidden truths, beyond a mere posthumous outing, could be revealed?

The story, told by dual narrators –Martha in the present tense, and remembering her family life, and in her husband Jonathan Ascher's journals from the '50s to early '70s– grow increasingly compelling. Descriptions of the growth of their son Mickey are frequently prefaced with reminders of his death, which makes sense, of course, when the primary narrator is a widow in her 70s. It offered a more poetic, less melodramatic handling of family loss.

Seeing the pre- and post-Stonewall gay community in New York City in such critical light (through Ascher's rather self-hating and indulgent perspective) was fascinating, because of its level of truth. The numerous literary barbs between authors were amusing. Many men like Ascher resisted coming out, and still do. The nuanced portrayal of what could be entirely unsympathetic characters (particularly with uncomfortable family interactions) are part of the flair of Merlis' novels. They fluctuate between worlds with a subtlety most gay fiction lacks. His artistry will be missed.
1 review13 followers
March 24, 2015
This is a terrific novel, which is why I blurbed it. I am a huge fan of Mark Merlis and this might be his best book yet, although I also love An Arrow's Flight. JD is sexy, dangerous, and beautifully written.
Profile Image for John Treat.
Author 15 books39 followers
April 11, 2016
This book is incredible. Let's start with the writing: Merlis always seems to have exactly the right phrase. "Two peaches on an azure plate." "Camp Cost-Plenty-Wampum." "I fucked him the way I want to fuck America." He is a great and talented writer.

But there's more. There's the story. I'm now the age Jonathan died at in the novel, but I am also the age his son Mickey would be, had he lived in real life. I am both of them. No part of me is Martha, the wife and mother, but I hung on her every word.

This is a gay novel. I'm up for the same gay award for my novel that Merlis's is, in fact. But JD is also about Vietnam, where like Mickey I was, too, and this novel haunts me for it. There have been other gay novels where Vietnam figures (THE BOY WHO PICKED UP THE BULLETS), but not like this one. I understand character Mickey's thinking about the world perfectly, thanks to author Merlis. You know what? I won't regret anything at all if Merlis wins the prize and I do not. This is a near perfect novel, and it deserves all it can get.
22 reviews
May 19, 2016
Let me start by saying that Merlis's "An Arrow's Flight" is a book I've recommended time and time again to friends. His other two previous novels were good, but IMHO, not nearly at the level of 'Arrow'. Here, I feel he hits it out of the park a second time. Since the time frame is late 20th century (rather than a fantasy mythological ancient Greece), and the tone is realist rather than magical realism, many readers may find it more accessible than 'Arrow'.
I wonder if part of his inspiration was "The Aspern Papers" by Henry James?
For, as in Jame's novella, a young man is approaching an older woman, seeking literary effects, in order to write a biography of a famous writer. (Here, semi-famous.) And the woman who guards the papers had a long-ago romance with the dead author.
However, there are twists. The author is famous for being a proto-Gay Liberation figure; his widow guards the fact that her marriage was to a bisexual, who she loathed as much as loved; they had a child, whom they both adored (and kept their secrets from). There are many more secrets revealed in a very short novel.
When I started it, I wasn't convinced that the author could write from the point of view of a middle-aged woman. Nor did I necessarily want him to. I should have trusted the author. Taking the widow's point of view to tell the story allows him reveal everything slowly. In the end, the questions are almost epistemological. What do we really know? How do we know it, how can we trust it? What is truth, after all? And how does "truth" relate to meaning, faith, or love? I hope this great novel finds many readers.
Profile Image for Nicholas.
Author 6 books72 followers
June 22, 2016
I've loved Mark Merlis since his first novel, American Studies, and this one tackles some similar themes. It's the story of Jonathan Ascher, 60s radical novelist, and his widow Martha. Jonathan died in the 70s and Martha is asked by an academic to lift the seal on Jonathan's papers so that he can write a biography. Martha decides to read them first, including Jonathan's journals. While Martha always knew that Jonathan was gay, and that this was part of why their marriage was so fraught, she learns so much more about his life through reading the journals, including about his tortured relationship with their son, Mickey, who died in Vietnam. The structure is pretty clever, alternating back and forth between Martha in the present, Jonathan in the past, and Martha's memories of that same past. And Merlis tackles really big questions about gay rights, and radical futures, and happiness, and childrearing, and fidelity, and what it means to be gay in the first place. He's really talented.
Profile Image for Graeme Aitken.
Author 12 books35 followers
June 25, 2015
Mark Merlis is one of the most accomplished American writers of gay-themed fiction (American Studies, Pyrrhus and Man About Town) and novelist Christopher Bram declares JD to be ‘his best novel yet’ – a statement I would echo. It’s the story of Jonathan Ascher, a 1960s writer who gained fame and acclaim for his groundbreaking gay-positive book JD. Thirty years later, Jonathan Ascher is dead and all but forgotten. Then a minor academic expresses an interest in writing the official biography and seeks permission from Ascher’s widow and literary executor Martha. This request leads Martha to examine her husband’s papers for herself, where she discovers a series of candid diaries, largely detailing Jonathan’s sexual exploits with men. Martha was aware of her husband’s inclinations, though ignorant of the specifics. They married when she fell pregnant, raised their son, and had an unconventional marriage, with both of them seeking sex elsewhere. The sexual detail of the diaries makes for captivating reading – Jonathan finds sex largely in restrooms, but also bars and on the streets. The diaries also solve an enigma for Martha − why her husband read the sport pages so avidly when he loathed sports. He needed this knowledge to talk to men in bars and try to seduce them. But the real heart of these diaries explores Jonathan’s relationship with his son Mickey, who died while serving in the Vietnam War, and provides several surprising revelations to Martha about her son.
Profile Image for Kim.
Author 1 book2 followers
July 20, 2015
While I love Mark Merlis's books (particularly American Studies), I struggled with JD. I put it down a few times because the negativity was just overwhelming, but I did finish it and I'm glad I did. Merlis is an extremely talented writer and he does an excellent job of conveying the characters' emotion on the page. JD reminded me a lot of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn because all of these books feature main characters who are bitter and hate their lives and take that bitterness and hatred out on pretty much everyone around them. To witness Martha and Jonathan's already sad marriage just crumble while they each try to pump the love they don't have for each other into their only child is painful at times. There are no winners here.
79 reviews2 followers
April 2, 2016
Exceptionally well done book that I will have a lot of trouble recommending. The blunt force of the topic will be offensive to many of my fellow readers, too many with over delicate tastes. Beyond being a contemporary of one of the characters in the book, thankfully little in the book is parallel with my own life experience beyond the sameness of the dynamics of all families. The recreation of the 1960's and early 1970's is canny and feels true to my memory of the era, but it is the interior exploration of the life of the "pre-Stonewall" married man having sex with men that fascinates and his forbidden compulsion that ultimately horrifies.
Profile Image for Joey.
149 reviews12 followers
April 15, 2015
I didn't hate the book. I didn't love the book. I think having had some exposure to Mark Merlis's writing as well as some exposure to the cultural milieu that "JD" is set in may have helped. It also becomes difficult to find empathy or even basic interest in people who are really quite detestable and this book is full of them. That may have even been part of Merlis's point- making people overly easy to hate to force the reader to plow through the stereotype. In any event, that device only saddled the novel's least known character with more mystery and further questions.
Profile Image for Tim.
164 reviews3 followers
November 16, 2015
A dark, multi-layered look at life in a dysfunctional family set mostly in the middle part of the last century. Issues of gay life, Vietnam, drugs, infidelity, family conflict, and AIDS are featured in various degrees.
Profile Image for Martin.
404 reviews3 followers
March 31, 2018
I have read all of Mark Merlis's books and while they are all wonderful, I liked this best. The ending just blew me away. It is filled with memorable characters and my favorite was the son of the two very difficult parents. This book did not get the recognition that it deserves....Highly recommended
Profile Image for Michael Ritchie.
502 reviews9 followers
August 27, 2016
Jonathan Ascher was a notorious 60s writer, teacher, and thinker whose greatest book was a mediation on masculinity called "JD." 30 years after his death, his widow Martha goes through his journals before deciding whether or not to let a young professor write a biography. She is uneasy about the fact that the writer will certainly turn Ascher into a revered figure of gay liberation--though married with a son, Ascher had lots of sex with men, and had a self-loathing relationship with his sexuality. Martha learns many secrets about Jonathan and about their son Mickey who was drafted and died in Vietnam.

Beautifully written, in the voices of two people: Martha in the novel's present, and Jonathan through the journals of the past. Oddly, it's Martha who I enjoyed reading more, maybe because Jonathan is so fucked-up and arrogant. The family relationships become perversely tangled and reading about Ascher's obsession with his son becomes uncomfortable at times, as I'm sure Merlis intended. Things get a bit soap-operaish, but it felt good to read a "gay" novel that wasn't about coming-out, or hunks having romances in the big city, or AIDS (though AIDS does provide an undertone here and there). I loved Merlis' first novel American Studies and now I must go back and catch up on the two other books between that one and this one.
Profile Image for Alistair.
763 reviews5 followers
June 2, 2016
Thirty years after Jonathan Ascher's death, his widow Martha, is approached by an aspiring biographer to write Jonathan's life. Initially wary - why would anyone want to read the life of a not-very-famous author, noted for one piece of fiction, 'JD'. Before acquiescing, Martha decides to read Jonathan's copious journals. And what she discovers both appalls and bewilders her. Narrated by the quirky, spiky Martha, interspersed by Jonathan's journal entries. Jonathan's failure as husband, father and novelist form the theme of the novel and his self destructiveness mirrors the moral collapse of America during the 1960s and early '70s. As Martha declares "Leave it to Jonathan to declare that his descent to steadily more degraded hustlers was the trajectory of the nation"
832 reviews
February 5, 2016
Written a story in a story, a wife looks at her husband's diary notebooks to discover the hidden closet of her husband--although she has known all along since there was an unspoken agreement. We learn his, and her feelings over the time. Didn't like the structure. Thought that it might be a very real look at the married closeted person's life in the 50's-early 60's. Son figures out his father's habits--confronts him after what appears to be a move on his only son. Son has a more real relationship with father. Son dies of heroin during Vietnam War.
Profile Image for Trent.
Author 2 books6 followers
July 8, 2016
A finalist for the 2016 Ferro Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction
Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.