What do we know about William Howard Taft? In my case, sadly, not much.I've heard about his girth, and the famous stuck-in-the-bathtub story.
Perhaps we also recall his ?moustache, a long, Lorax-like handlebar that,when combined with his size, made him look like a stuffed walrus.
It is our collective ignorance that makes Taft, a one-termer from 1909 to 1913, the ideal figure for a satirical novel about a long-missing
former president who appears out of nowhere and takes the modern political world by storm.
That is the story of "Taft 2012" by Jason Heller, and this Rip Van Winkle tale is fresh and funny, a fast and purely enjoyable read that could not come at a better time.
Heller is a former writer for the Onion's A.V. Club, a site that manages to combine humor with deft pop culture analysis better than just about anywhere else.
Consider the author's Onion-y "classified Secret Service incident report" from early in the novel:
"At approximately 10:42, an oversized mammalian figure covered in mudappeared behind the White House South Lawn Fountain, approaching the press conference in progress on the lawn. It was unclear to me for several seconds whether the intruder was a man or a large animal as it lurched toward the crowd while moaning loudly. ... He was a very large man, over 6 feet tall, probably 300 pounds, wearing a formal ?tweed suit.
He had white hair and a handlebar moustache.
My first thought was that he looked like some sort of deranged presidential history buff dressed up as William Howard Taft."
This was no deranged buff. ?This is Taft -- what a perfect name ?for so gargantuan a fellow -- and after 99 years of rest, he must reacquaint
himself to a world of computers and video game golf, Twitter and civil rights, special interests and Twinkies. (He loves Twinkies.)
Are you starting to get a sense that "Taft 2012" is a rather one-joke proposition? It is. But if the satire is a bit toothless and ho-hum –
Bug business runs politics? People Tweet crazy things? Boob-tube talking heads are idiots?
This is not news. – it's always funny.
See Taft in the makeup chair before a TV appearance: "Good God, man! Is all this truly necessary? I look like a cut-rate Manila harlot!"
Taft after being told what the paper sack before him on an airplane is called: "Ah, yes. Barf bag. The eloquence of the twenty-first century never ceases to astound me."
And Taft, setting foot on the streets of Chicago: "Is that a hot dog vendor my nose detects?"
Outside of Taft himself, one of the great literary creations of the year, ?it's all a bit forgettable.
Even as Taft gets to know his congresswoman-granddaughter and creates the Taft Party, it's hard to care much where Heller's novel is headed. (Kind of like the GOP primaries were.)
But it's a nice fantasy, especially now, as campaign season lurches along.
And the last page must be acknowledged as rather brilliant:
"Follow the 2012 campaign season alongside William Howard Taft at TAFT212.COM."
Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic and staff editor at Buffalo Spree Magazine.
By Jason Heller
256 pages, $14.95