I had the distinct privilege of being the first person outside the Riggenbach household to hear this recording. All the praise of Garet Garrett’s novels had failed to convince me to read any of them. Listening to the audiobook was something I did for work, to check for errors before we went into production. I didn’t even take up the task with any pleasure, as there was a very narrow window for quality review and it meant that I had to spend my weekend doing something other than R&R.
I thought I’d at least get some yard work done while I listened, so the first chapters are etched into my memory with visions of my own manual labor as the book opens with crowds of unemployed workers, organizing to march on Washington.
My first reaction was skeptical. Riggenbach’s is a great voice for nonfiction. He is clear, easy on the ears, and conveys the importance of his subject; but these virtues in the context of nonfiction don’t necessarily carry over to the quirky, emotional, character-driven realm of fiction.
Well, I quickly forgot those reservations as I got swept up in the story. The Mises Institute and its supporters have mostly discussed the economic history of The Driver, which is much more interesting than you might fear, and much more interesting, I found, than is conveyed in all the reviews that emphasize how interesting it is. It is indeed a procapitalism novel, and Garrett manages to communicate that part of the story with passion and fascination, feelings that are contagious for the reader (or listener).
What I was not expecting was the human story behind the economic history. Back to Riggenbach as reader: after a few chapters, it was obvious that Jeff Riggenbach was, in fact, the perfect choice for the unnamed first-person narrator of this novel. The narrator is a journalist, and so is Riggenbach. The narration is wry and reserved, which isn’t a bad description of Riggenbach’s reading voice. But this reserved style acts as a counterpoint to the often chaotic action of the story. The man telling the story is the calm at the center of the storm of human activity that surrounds him. When we meet the hero of the story — the great railroad capitalist, Henry Galt — we find in him the only other steady presence in the swirl of confusion that was turn-of-the-20th-century Wall Street. I don’t mean to suggest similarities between the two characters beyond that central complementary calmness; Galt is irritable, impatient with people, and far from charming in any mundane sense; the narrator is patient and sociable without being quite outgoing. He is also primarily an observer, whereas Galt is The Driver: the driver of the story and the driver, it turns out, of the American economy.
The human side of the story is everything Galt fails to see, mostly concerning his family: an elderly mother, a socialite wife, and two daughters — one attractive but aloof and the other winsome and playful. Galt’s family suffers through their waxing and waning fortunes, and continues to suffer the anti-new-money social ostracism of Galt’s ultimate success. Galt is immune to society’s subtler punishments and he doesn’t have the moral imagination to understand why his family isn’t happy. Fortunately for him, they love him devotedly.
And love, believe it or not, is the other driver of this book. It turns out to be a love story, or two or three love stories — between the narrator and (1) Henry Galt himself, (2) the Galt family, who come to adopt him slowly and quietly as one of their own, and (3) one of Galt’s daughters, for whom his feelings become more than fraternal.
What began as labor quickly turned to pleasure as I listened to this newly available audiobook, and I recommend it highly, whether or not you care about economics or history. It is a very human story. The fact that you might finish it with a greater respect for the social benefits of speculation and entrepreneurship is merely an added bonus.
Update: The Mises Institute has made an audio sample available: