Given the bizarre premise, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the satirical Taft 2012 by Jason Heller. I am pleased to report that I thoroughly enjoyed it and read it in two days – and that wasn’t just because I had a lot of time on my hands.
First off, the plot. Bear with me because it’s a weird one and really needs to be stated before I critique the novel.
Have you ever heard of the U.S. president William Howard Taft? I will forgive you if you haven’t as he was a one term president sandwiched between the much more famous presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. (I had only heard of him because during The Simpsons, it is revealed that Mr Burns’ mum had an affair with him. Homer: “Taft you old dog…”)
According to Taft 2012, while Taft was on his way to the inauguration of Wilson in 1912, he grew tired and lay down. He then promptly disappeared from history. Ninety nine years later he suddenly wakes up on the White House lawn covered in dirt. Once it is established that it is, inexplicably, ex-president Taft he becomes a celebrity. The American public has had enough of all the mudslinging of modern politics and the wars, terrorism, poverty and so on that seem to blight their lives. President Taft was known for being Progressive, tough on monopolies and big business and represents a return to a time when America was great and honest. So they call for Taft to put himself up for Presidency in the upcoming 2012 elections. Which he subsequently does.
So there you go. A pretty novel premise I think you will agree.
Surprisingly it works. It doesn’t really matter that Taft being around in modern times is never actually explained as it isn’t really trying to be a science fiction novel. Taft 2012 feels like a humorous, and occasionally touching, allegory on what is wrong with America and the West in general. Think of it as a witty essay on the state of the world. It isn’t all negative either, he likes playing golf on the Wii and joins twitter.
The story plays out in three acts. Taft coming to terms with where he is, Taft going on a mini road trip with his bodyguard and ‘connecting with the people’, and finally Taft campaigning for election. The ex-president is a device through which we can view our modern world through a fresh set of intelligent and honest eyes. Fortunately Heller makes us like Taft. He’s a huge man, over six foot and 300 pounds, so there are a lot of jokes about food and generally being a bit hefty. It is the humour and insight provided by Taft’s journey that makes Taft 2012 such an entertaining read. Some of the observations he makes are pretty obvious, some are just interesting truisms, some are a bit deeper. For example, while he marvels at technology like the internet and satellite TV, he also notices that it distances people and this lack of ‘face to face’ has lead to an increase in sarcasm and bitterness and the sort of behaviour you see in nearly every internet forum. The world is getting smaller but more anonymous.
The reason why Taft would make such a good leader is the fact that, unlike nearly every politician ever, he never actually wanted to be president. It’s a truism that anyone who desires power should automatically be barred from getting it. Taft unwittingly alters the famous Groucho Marx quote (which he had never heard) to: “I don’t want to be in any party that would have me as its leader.” He also points out that one thing that never changes is politics and he always hated it. This also allows him a unique perspective on events.
The are only a few criticisms I have of Taft 2012. The first is that it is a quick read. It could have been fleshed out a little more. It’s over 240 pages though, so maybe I’m just whinging. Another criticism that is that apart from Taft, the characters are a bit one dimensional. You are left wanting to find out a bit more about what happens to them. An argument against that could be that it doesn’t matter. They are there to represent things that Taft can relate to and comment upon. It feels a bit of a shame though because their reactions to him enhance and balance this commentary. These are minor niggles though.