Taft 2012 by Jason Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you follow my reviews, you know that I am setting mysteries down for a while. I'm not liking any of them, which might not be fair to the people who read this, because they might be good.
So my new rule has been that a book must contain a very cool concept, or at least have been well received by an author who is very impressive to me. Yes, very subjective, but that's why anyone with a keyboard and an imagination can set up one of these blog things.
The concept behind "Taft 2012" mirrors a concept that I have had in mind for a book of my own for a long time. Luckily, the concept isn't so close that mine will look like plagiarism, if it ever finds its way to a publisher, but here it is: William Howard Taft, instead of slinking away after his four years in the White House to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few years later (by the way, he was the only President to do that), simply disappears on the morning of President Wilson's inauguration in March of 2013. He appears again, in the same place where he was napping on the White House grounds in 2011, having napped in some sort of wormhole for 98 years.
He is clearly not an impostor: he knows the Presidential ID code that all Chief Executives, at least in this fictive world, have had since Andrew Johnson was in the White House, and his DNA matches samples that were preserved in the detritus of information that was taken from him way back in the days of the Titanic.
Of course, he clearly represents a conundrum to the world of 2012. Yes, he gets a pension just like all of the other ex-Presidents (thankfully, not retroactive to 1913). He gets Secret Service protection.
Meanwhile, all around him is swirling the Presidential campaign of 2012. President Obama, although unnamed specifically, hovers in the background, running against an equally (in the view of the book) unimpressive unnamed Republican opponent. Taft, still finding his way around this new world, has a great-granddaughter serving in the Congress -- from his own home district in Cincinnati. He becomes an object of curiosity and (somewhat) odd attention when he happens out into his environs in D.C.
Then, an interesting thing happens. A talk show host, and a host of bloggers, decide that this mild Republican Progressive is just what the American public needs, in the giant vacuum between the Secular Moral Majority, which is what the Republican Party has become (at least in this writer's opinion) and the Former Liberals Occupying the Middle by Default. Neither party has great ideas; neither party has workable solutions to the nation's problems; neither nominee has the courage to voice an opinion stronger than a weather report.
And so why not Taft? In 1912, he was belittled by the great TR for having let down his vision of the Chief Executive as holder of the "Big Stick." In 2012, though, his notions that people should think freely, act decently, and take care of one another when needed strike a chord with the American public.
Until we find out who is bankrolling this grassroots movement. But that would spoil things. I will say that processed foods are also a source of the author's (and Taft's) venom in this story.
And so Mr. Heller's book is whimsical, somewhat silly at times, but at other times it is spot on. The characters are a bit flat, although Taft's New Year's Eve romp with a punk rocker made me laugh out loud. After all, this was a man that had to be pried out of the White House bathtub, because he was just that large. In the era BEFORE high fructose corn syrup and the Happy Meal.
The narrative structure hops around, from straight story to quotes from his assistant, to surveys taken in the news, to "rants and raves" posted on Craig's List. This gives the book more of a documentary feel, like this is more of a look at a political movement than a novel. The end result is a fake political movement, along with its own real website. It definitely blurs the lines between reality and fiction, but not any more so than, say, The Audacity of Hope did.
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the most "important" political issue of our time consisting of gay marriage, while Syrian children die by the truckload under the thumb of Assad. I'm tired of our leadership waiting for their underlings to tiptoe out to important positions to see if they will be victims of public outcry before the leadership itself will take those positions. I'm tired of leaders settling for easy answers, or even no answers at all, because they don't think we're paying attention.
So in between reading these outstanding reviews, and checking Facebook for status updates, do something to change the world. One outrage at a time.
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