Taft 2012: A Novel

By Jason Heller

(Quirk, $14.95, 246 pages)

Who is this author?

President’s Day (perhaps our least-celebrated national holiday, unless you count the car sales) has come and gone, but this being an election year, presidents and presidential wannabes are still very much on our minds. They were on Jason Heller’s mind, too, resulting in his new novel, a clever and highly satirical “what-if” that asks: What if 27th U.S. President William Howard Taft, the Republican who preceded Woodrow Wilson, were alive and well this year and pressured to run again? How would he do in this year of wild political mood swings?

The imaginative Mr. Heller is a journalist who specializes in pop culture and edits for various hipster, sci-fi and alternative print and online journals such as the A.V. Club, Weird Tales, Tor.com and papers in the Village Voice press chain. He also writes fiction/fantasy/horror stories, which have been published in such venues as Sybil’s Garage and Farrago’s Wainscot. (OK, I had never before heard of them either, but aren’t they terrific titles?) “Taft 2012” is his debut novel.

What is this book about?

To appreciate “Taft 2012,” first you must willingly suspend your disbelief. Altogether now, lift!  

The premise here is that Taft – that 300-pound-plus dude who was president from 1909 to 1913 and, it is rumored, once had to be pried out of the White House bathtub – falls asleep just before leaving office and Rip Van Winkles his way through a 100-year-long snooze. He finds himself dazed and confused in 2012 America, where Republicans and Democrats alike see in the Big Guy a worthy candidate: tough but peaceful, practical but progressive, hard-working and honest. What’s not to like? Soon he’s caught up in the mad, mad world of political media coverage and has to learn to do 21st Century things like tweet. He also makes friends with a 106-year-old nursing home resident who remembers what life was like when handlebar-mustachioed men like Taft bestrode the world.

Why you’ll like it:

In a year that many are finding politically absurd, Heller hilariously pushes absurdity to new heights and in the process, has plenty to say that is not crazy at all.

“The book isn’t so much about [Taft] being an actual alternative; it’s about people seeing him as a symbol, as an ideal, as something to strive toward,” Heller told NPR. “You know, having that kind of hope is something that I hope people never lose. The moment that’s completely gone, then we’re in even more trouble than we might already be.”

Besides the political philosophizing, Heller deftly employs such devices as Twitter tweets and TV transcripts, which liven up the prose. He ends the book with a long speech by Taft that carries a thought-provoking message for our times.

What others are saying:

“Debut novelist Heller sets up his satire so well that one might doubt one’s grasp of presidential history!…[a] strong and thoughtful political exploration,” says Library Journal.

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “This surprisingly poignant novel will find an eager audience in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, but it deserves a longer shelf life. Heller’s numerous historical insights and observations regarding Taft as president, husband, American, and human being will have more than a few readers wishing Taft really could be a third-party candidate in 2012, to be a rational voice in the “din of all this twenty-first century madness.”…a stellar debut.”

When is it available?

You can pry it off the shelves now at the Hartford Public Library.

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