Saturday, January 14, 2012

Taft 2012 by Jason Heller

Taft 2012
by Jason Heller

On the surface, Taft 2012 sounded like quite the funny novel to read going into an election year. A satire on our political process mixed with a semi-obscure presidency? Sure. Count me in. The end result is an amusing, though not fully baked story.

Mysteriously awakened from a near century-long slumber on the White House grounds, former President William Howard Taft appears alive and unchanged, though covered in mud, during a present day presidential press conference. He is confused as to what has happened to him, not to mention taken aback by all the various modern medical instruments used to confirm his identity. They even "have the unmitigated gall" to take a piece of his mustache. The mustache!

This book has a lot of talk about the mustache. And Taft's eating habits. And how the only thing anyone seems to remember about the Taft Presidency is "the bathtub incident." Also, in this version of Taft's life, he did not live until 1930, but instead "disappeared" on Inauguration Day for Woodrow Wilson.

Taft laughed. "Not the world I remember? Why, I'd have to agree with you there. Today I've been shot, assaulted with strange machines, and spoken to in riddles. I appear to be in a world where the President of the United States can be condescended to like a child. By a manservant, no less."

"Mr. Taft," the man said, "I need you to keep an open mind here, today and in the coming days. There is a lot you're going to need to adjust to. First of all, I am the President of the United States. Not you. Not Woodrow Wilson. Me."
Though the President is not named, we are to infer that this book occurs in a very similar "universe" to the one we are in, with our current President running for re-election and the Republican party still sorting out their candidates. The above conversation is the last we see of the White House, though it isn't long until we are introduced to Taft's great-great-granddaughter, Congresswoman Rachel Taft, as well as Taft historian, Susan Weschler. And because this is like our universe, cable news and the internet basically explode with Taft coverage. A secret service agent, Ira Kowalczyk — the one who shot him in the leg during the interrupted press conference — is to keep an eye on Taft and help acclimate him to modern society.

After some convincing, he agrees to to be interviewed on a cable news show. Things are going mostly well, despite the somewhat predicable craziness of host Pauline Craig, until she surprises him with live footage of people across the country. They're chanting his name.

"What you're looking at, Mr. President, is breaking news. A Raw Talk exclusive. Our investigators have uncovered these groups — small, grassroots, spontaneous — that have sprung up across this great nation of ours, and they've gathered in dozens of spots today to watch this historic broadcast. Your coming out, as it were. They're just beginning to blog and network, and they seem to come from all walks of life and political viewpoints. But they have one thing in common: They want a new direction. They want a return to values and tradition. They want new leadership, one driven by reasonable common sense rather than ego or ideology."

Her voice swelled to a crescendo just as the audience broke into raucous applause.

"In short, they want you."

Never mind that "crescendo" makes the word "swelled" redundant, but what about the fact that no one seems particularly concerned as to how Taft is still alive, not to mention how long it will last? Yes, he seems perfectly fine as though no time has passed, but who's to say he won't just fall down dead tomorrow? Apparently no one, as Taft does not wonder even once.

He also has little trouble adjusting to living a century later. Yes, he finds certain matters of dress odd, and experiences some puzzlement over certain inventions, but fifty pages into the book, he's Wii golfing with little more astonishment than, "That's quite remarkable."

Remember, the earliest commercially sold televisions did not appear until 1928. The real William Howard Taft died in 1930, but this Taft disappeared in 1913. He finds the remote control a "time saver," but no comment is made about the television itself. I know it seems a bit persnickety to call out factual differences in a book that has an unreal premise, but I have to be made to believe that premise by presenting a world that makes sense on its own terms.

Also existent in this world is a food conglomerate called "Uptyn Foods," a name that is meant to recall The Jungle author Upton Sinclair, the man who helped inspire the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, passed by Taft's predecessor Theodore Roosevelt. Taft 2012 mentions Roosevelt passing that act, but Taft only finds that the name Uptyn "did ring a bell somehow." If it's excessive slumber-amnesia happening, it's not explained, but one would think that this Taft would remember someone whose bestseller influenced government policy during a time at which he was involved with government.

Uptyn Foods, however, is the opposite of "pure." They make the most processed of processed foods and sell them cheaply, in mass quantities and varieties, and cause their consumers to become addicted to what is essentially fat, salt, and "chemical synthesis" masquerading as something else. Rachel Taft is trying to pass the "International Foods Act" which would regulate what exactly is put into food, as Uptyn lobbyists have slowly dismantled much of the 1906 act. A disastrous Thanksgiving dinner involving something called "TurkEase" is what restarts William Howard Taft's political passion, as he decides to fight against "Uptyn's festering reservoir of corruption!"

A commentary on our processed food and cable news diet is a fine enough concept for political satire, but somehow, a road trip happens in the meantime. Taft and Agent Kowalczyk start traveling the country — with some vague talk about "real America" — and there's an obligatory New Year's Eve dive bar drunk-fest scene. It has some good parts, but it doesn't really serve the overall story.

Yes, I found this book to be enjoyable, not to mention a light and quick read, but it just wasn't quite as good as it could have been. The first half felt better thought out than the second, and only former President Taft feels close to fully fleshed out as a character. (Pun not intended — I'm not going to make some joke about "fully fleshed out" and his weight. There are plenty of those jokes in the book.) He's quick with the one-liners, misses his dead wife, and has plenty to say about the state our country finds itself in. I don't know how those views align with the real Taft, but in this case, it does not matter because it is one of the instances where the content feels true. It is what this character would say. Or the author, at least.

Rachel Taft fares all right as far as characterization, and host Pauline Craig is an appropriately over-the-top entity, but the rest aren't so clear. I don't need full character biographies or anything, but about all I remember off the top of my head is that Kowalczyk is into punk, and historian Susan Weschler likens her expertise to being "an authority on Luxembourg" — as in, other people tend to pick more popular things to study. I won't even get into the bartender they meet on their road trip, except to say that she's so much of a cliché, she serves almost zero purpose.

Taft 2012 could have worked better as a novella, after another round of some hard-ass editing. That's certainly not to say I didn't like the book — No, I laughed plenty and recognized its potential. I just expected more... I don't know, oomph. If nothing else, I wouldn't have minded more explanation for Taft's second life, and a little more circumspection overall. It's true that history is unkind to quieter personalities, and that the circus pretending to be our government reaches new levels of crazy every day, but there is the underlying unsaid thought running through popular culture: Death is an end, an end that happens to other people.

Present day politicians have the nasty habit of simultaneously invoking our history while also ignoring the specifics. So what happens when that history can talk back? What happens when a man who should be dead lives again? Why does that man get a second chance and no one else? Mortality, legacy and reflection — Taft 2012 should have started there.

Full disclosure: I won this book through The Next Best Book Club in December. It is an advance reading copy, and so some content may have changed for the final copy. The publisher, Quirk Books, is the one who sent me the book, along with a 'Taft 2012' campaign button that my husband thinks is hilarious to wear around town. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read IV, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Though I'm taking things easier this year, I expect to surpass the 'Half Cannonball' distinction by the end of 2012.

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