|Trade paperback, 249 pages|
Acquired February 2012
Read March 2012
by Jason Heller
As a Cincinnatian (in spirit, if not current geographical location), I felt compelled to pick up Taft 2012, a book that asks the question that I suspect is on everyone's mind this primary season: "What if William Howard Taft suddenly reappeared and decided to run for president again?" The premise reminds me, oddly, of the 2006 Robin Williams film Man of the Year, in that it features an unlikely outside candidate running for president, who is used to poke at the partisan problems of modern American politics, ultimately somewhat toothlessly.
The best part of Taft 2012 is that it's funny and light. It never wears out its welcome, and even though Jason Heller goes to the fat jokes perhaps a little bit too much, I laughed at them more than I didn't, so it's hard to complain too much. He doesn't even rely on the stock man-out-of-his-own-time jokes too much, perhaps aside from the bit where Taft tries to come to grips with Twitter. The book is also peppered with little interstitials between the chapters, taken from media broadcasts, web postings, and the like; my favorite had to be the Etsy listing for a Taft mustache, but they were generally entertaining. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, where Taft adjusts to life in 2011, but also kept on waiting for something more substantial to happen.
Unfortunately for Taft 2012, it also wants to be more hard-hitting and incisive than it is. It keeps its references to contemporary politics vague (besides a couple oblique Obama and Romney jokes), and the only issue the resurrected Taft tackles is overly processed food, which isn't exactly controversial. (Weirdly, I think, he connects it to the molecular gastronomy movement.) And even that becomes bogged down in this weird conspiracy story, Taft 2012 having fallen into the same trap as Man of the Year: it is so unlikely for its central character to achieve political prominence that explanation of how it happened ends up taking over the story at the end.
I'm not sure what I think of the ending. On one hand, it goes somewhere unexpected, on the other hand, it's kind of a more realistic take, and on yet another hand, I'm not convinced realism is what anyone wanted out of Taft 2012 to begin with. The epilogue was oddly touching, though, for a book whose central character wasn't exactly deeply characterized.
Heller is a first-time novelist, and I think sometimes it shows; his dialogue is a little rough at times, and the novel doesn't always immerse you in a place. Maybe this is sour grapes, as I was excited to read a novel with scenes set in Cincinnati, but the book is sometimes too light on scene-setting details. This gets better as it goes, though; when the setting returns to Cincinnati later, there are some nice references. Not a single one to chili, though!
It's fun, it's quick, and even though Heller never uses the phrase "Cincinnati Fatty" (one of Taft's actual press nicknames), it's still very enjoyable.