2012-09-05

Book Review: "The Driver" by Garet Garrett

You will probably never find The Driver in your local library or book store, although I am surprised to find that you can purchase it at Amazon.com. This is a relatively obscure book written by an old journalist from The Saturday Evening Post, who died in the 1950s. It did not win any awards, and I am unsure whether or not it was a commercial success. It is about as obscure a book as one can find.

So, how did I find it? Somehow, the works of Garet Garrett were re-discovered by the folks at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Having rediscovered them, they set to republish them and make them available for sale or (free) download on the LvMI website. They soon embarked on a modest publicity campaign to promote the works. (Take, for example, Jeffrey Tucker's Mises Daily entitled "Who Is Garet Garrett?")

Just before I moved from Ottawa, I loaded up my e-reader with a large number of free eBooks from the Mises Institute. I wanted to tackle a few more of Mises' own works, and I also wanted to dive deeper into some other aspects of Austrian School economics. I downloaded the important Rothbard works, some Nozick, some Bastiat...

By the time I had a virtual libertarian library sitting on my e-reader, I realized that I needed some lighter reading or else I'd either exhaust myself or go crazy. I recalled reading about Garrett's novels on the LvMI blog, so I figured, what the heck? I didn't expect much, but thought it wouldn't hurt to have some lighter reading around.

I was pleasantly stunned by just how good The Driver is.

The book tells the story of a political journalist who by chance finds work at a major railroad company, based in New York. While working there, he meets a man named Henry Galt, who hangs around the office a lot and wants to know every detail of the business, though he does not appear to have a formal role in the company. Eventually, the journalist - identified only by the nickname Galt gives him, "Coxey" - learns that Galt is a Wall Street speculator with dreams of buying and running a railroad. The remainder of the novel chronicles Galt's stunning ascent from being a speculator with a spotty financial record to being the most successful railroad magnate in the country, while Coxey plays the role of Galt's right-hand man and closest confidant.

Throughout the story, Garrett uses the historical backdrop of 1890s America to tell his tale. The struggle between silver- or gold-backed currency plays a central role in character development and plot setting. The late-90s economic recession is also a major plot device.

Garrett intersperses social commentary and political insight throughout the plot, but he does so free from polemics. His writing is so sharp and witty that any broader social points made throughout the novel lend themselves to painting a more in-depth picture of Coxey's character, an extremely intelligent and wise spectator riding the American political and economic tides. The effect is grand.

While the book is primarily available through libertarian websites, I feel its appeal is actually much broader than that. Rarely have I read fiction that is so eloquently written without disintegrating into "journalism words" and pretentiously floral oration. There is a strong and intelligent sense of humor throughout the novel the likes of which is seldom found in popular fiction.

All said, this is one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in historical fiction.