William Howard Taft was a giant—both literally and figuratively—in the world of American politics, a figure remembered more perhaps for his prodigious size than his honor-bound views of leadership. That such a man could exist in the early 20th century and occupy the White House is no surprise, but what if a figure like Taft was transplanted into the pundit-happy, instant news media storm of 21st-century politics? What if “Big Bill” landed right smack in the center of the 2012 presidential election?
In a stirring, clever and fearlessly funny debut novel, Jason Heller explores this anachronism with biting satirical deviousness. For a work of such brevity, Taft 2012 manages to say more about modern American politics than most major pundits could ever hope to, and it does it while eliciting a giggle on nearly every page.
Heller’s tale poses an alternate history of Taft’s life that ends with his loss of the presidency to Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Instead of leaving the White House and going on with life, Taft lies down in the Rose Garden and wakes up again 98 years later, having never aged and with no memory of what happened.
Taft’s reappearance causes an immediate sensation, and while he’s left trying to connect with his great-great-granddaughter Rachel (she’s a congresswoman) and learning about Twitter, Nintendo Wii and the civil rights movement, the political sphere is shifting to accommodate his massive presence. Soon Taft finds himself left with no choice but to speak up, and what he has to say could change American politics forever.
It would be enough for Heller’s novel to simply be funny. It is funny, from its gripping opening to its poignant close, but Taft 2012 manages to do much more. It goes beyond funny to find the heart of this big man with a big new world to cope with. Heller’s Taft is a man on a precipice, constantly clawing for meaning in a world that’s passed him by, always trying to catch up. Somehow Heller manages to both play this for laughs and win the reader over with genuine care, and that’s truly surprising.
Taft 2012 is a brave, addictive book from a witty new voice in American fiction. Once you’ve started to read it, you won’t want to stop, and by the time you’ve finished, you’ll be wishing you could vote for its hero.