Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Taft 2012

Taft 2012: A Novel Jason Heller

In the fall of 2011, a giant, mud covered figure rises from the White House lawn and stumbles towards a Presidential press conference. After extensive testing it is determined to indeed be William Howard Taft, the 27th president.

Luckily, this is a Rip Von Winkle situation, not a zombie-Taft. Heller has our Taft disappearing on the day of Wilson’s inauguration, only to awaken 100 years later. In Taft’s world, he laid down to take a nap on his way to the ceremony and awoke in a strange new world.

Soon, a grassroots organization has sprung up, calling themselves the Taft party. They have rediscovered a president who is “conservative yet forward-thinking, pro-business yet pro-regulation, principled yet open to compromise.” In a nation torn apart of partisan politics, the Tafties have discovered the ultimate moderate.

The novel is attempting to be political satire (one of the main Tafties is Allen the Electrician) but the ridiculousness of our current political climate makes it pretty hard to satirize. It ends up just being a pretty straight representation. We don’t even get the fantasy of so many people joining together to call for moderation-- everyone’s just reading what they want into how they think Taft would handle our current situation.

But in the craziness of our current political climate, Taft’s main issue is processed food. While this makes sense for a president that might be most famous for getting stuck in the bathtub, it gets a bit preachy and old.

That said, where this book really stands is when it explores Taft as a man trying to come to terms with this strange new world. At its heart, this is a novel about a fish out of water, a man who had lost much when he fell asleep but woke up to find that he had lost everything, and now has to find his own way. These are the portions that I’m sure Publisher’s Weekly was referring when they called it “surprisingly poignant.”

Taft's surprisingly ok with most of the technology (he's not sure how to use it, but he really enjoys Wii Golf and the fact that the White House chef can use "the google" to find old timey recipes to make.) I like that Taft's main surprise with cell phones isn't that the exist, but that it took them so long to exist-- in his time Marconi had just made it possible for ships to communicate over open water, so why not people over open land? His views on race relations are a little too rosy to fully be believed (he just kinda goes with it and there isn't a lot of introspection there)

But when he tries to find himself and the life he lived in the history that has since been written, as he takes stock of his life and his second chance at a new one, the book really shines. I think this is often shown in the character of Irene, a 6-year-old girl that writes Taft a letter after he loses re-election and is still alive when he awakes. Taft's connection to her, as the only person he knows who has memories of the world he knew, is heartbreaking and beautiful.

Short chapters are interspersed with “stuff”-- craigslist postings, Twitter streams, TV talk show transcripts, Secret Service memos and even an Etsy listing for a Taft mustache. Such things are always welcome in books I read and help paint the bigger cultural picture.

Overall, it was a quick and enjoyable read that pulled me out of a pretty long (and depressing) reading slump. It’s not a perfect book, but I do recommend it.

Book Provided by... my local library

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