blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Review | In the Distance
Hernan Diaz
Coffee House Press, 2017

spacer In the Distance (Coffee House Press, 2017)

The first we see of Håkan Söderström, the enigmatic hero of Hernan Diaz’s masterful debut novel, In the Distance, he is groping his way out of a hole in the frozen sea, not far off the bow of an icebound ship headed for Alaska. We are somewhere around the middle of the nineteenth century. Older than most of his shipmates, taller by a few heads, longhaired and long-bearded, Håkan stands out. A lot. The crew marvels at his habit of bathing in the frigid water; to most of them he looks “like an old, strong Christ.”

Since embarking, rumors have spread about the mysterious figure who mostly stays belowdecks, whose outlandish attire only makes things worse: “the variety of animals that had gone into this coat, as well as the different stages of decrepitude of the hides, gave an idea both of how long the garment had been in the making and of how widely its wearer had traveled.” The tenor of the shipboard gossip invites reader associations with Westerns—movies and stories alike—the yarns and tall tales that mythologize an imagined North American frontier, a land of heroes and villains and an abundant, righteous violence:

He was offered his own territory by the Union, like a state, with his own laws and all. Just to keep him away.

He walks funny because they branded his feet.

He has an army of cliff dwellers in the cañon country waiting for his return.

He was betrayed by his gang and killed them all.

The first we hear from Håkan, he is back aboard the ship to confront the circle of storytellers, signaling a rebuttal that feels central to Diaz’s project:

“Yes,” he said, looking at no one in particular. “Most of those things are lies.”

In the Distance has canonical roots somewhere between the anti-Westerns of Cormac McCarthy and the Acid Westerns of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Jim Jarmusch, and with these it shares a wariness of glorified violence, a distrust in authority figures, and an ambivalent, often critical view of the American colonization of the West. The key to Diaz’s efforts—as he has said, to “disappoint and go against” the genre of the Western—is focusing this novel on Håkan, a Swedish emigrant who we follow from his boyhood on a remote farm up through his harrowing passage across the Atlantic. Separated from his older brother Linus at Portsmouth, England, he mistakenly gets on a boat bound for San Francisco, rather than New York, and the novel flows into the circular, unmapped years he spends wandering the deserts and plains of the western and southwestern territories around the time of the California Gold Rush. The narrative hovers close to the childlike Håkan’s consciousness, including his lack of English comprehension—other characters’ dialogue is haltingly summarized or even guessed at—in lean, impressionistic prose that avoids showy vernacular and never risks anachronism. Håkan’s foreignness makes him vulnerable and translates into a kind of simple clarity about the greed and violence of the fellow travelers he encounters.

These include the Brennans, a young Irish family that takes Håkan under its protection during the long sea voyage then enlists him as a helper on their meager upstart of a mining party, even as he dreams only of being reunited with Linus:

There was no doubt in his mind that his brother had made it to New York—Linus was much too smart to get lost. And although they had never planned for a situation like this, New York was the only place where they could meet, simply because it was the only place in America they both were able to name. All Håkan had to do was get there. Then, Linus would find him.

This sense of loss, hope, and Job-like steadfastness infuses Håkan’s travels and underscores his cultural and emotional detachment while giving him a target and a dream to return to, even as we see it recede further and further with each turn in Håkan’s fortunes—which, owing to his basic helplessness and a kind of existential passivity, are largely determined by the people he meets.

Soon parting ways with the Brennans, Håkan spends formative months with a mysterious, nameless woman and the cohort of thugs who help her maintain a dark power over a small frontier town. The violence she employs to obtain whatever and whoever she wants is echoed interestingly in the endless animal dissections of Lorimer, a Scottish-born naturalist who takes Håkan on later as a sort of apprentice, hunting the continent for previously unclassified species. Sharing with Håkan his secret quest “to go back in time and reveal the origin of man,” and pointing to similarities across spine and brain structures, Lorimer argues that “all animal life was, in essence, the same.” Going further, and “quoting a South American naturalist whose name Håkan could not retain,” Lorimer advances a rudimentary theory tracing man’s evolution back to “a thinking shell-less mollusk” that would have dwelled, countless ages earlier, along the primordial seabed that became the arid salt flats where he and Håkan tread. Håkan, raised Protestant and with no formalized education, recoils:

Had he not been created in god’s image? What, then, was god? And if this process was, as Lorimer claimed, still in motion, what would men become in the distant future? Would those faraway descendants regard his own bones as the carcass of some primitive beast?

The twin ideas of man as a primitive beast emerged from the sea and the “impressive and awful” sense of time’s enormity accompany Håkan throughout the rest of his wanderings. Certainly this landscape offers up both predator and prey, and at varying moments in the novel Håkan finds himself allied with both—notably a treacherous wagon train leader who takes Håkan under his wing and a sheriff’s deputy who offers him a transformative tenderness, among a few memorable others—though the default state in this novel is one of relentless solitude. There is no beauty here, but the void is sometimes transcendent:

Despite its terrors, a uniform expanse could be calming. Håkan knew this well—he had often forgotten himself and become nothing with the void around him, and those oblivious moments were the only mercy the desert had shown him.

Silent and alone and fleeing the violence and plunder of the settlers he has met, Håkan takes on an animal existence, heightened by the elaborate furs he wears, as well as his bewilderment at the symbols of “civilization” he increasingly discovers: the strange vision of “a rocking chair swaying back and forth in the open wilderness, nudged by the breeze,” or the stench of the wagon trains, “slippery and barbed, piercing and thick.” The eerie irrevocability of a fence, a road, a line of train tracks, where previously there was none.

This is a novel of the West that centers on the experiences of a white European, to be clear, but at its heart In the Distance is deeply suspicious of familiar symbols of American “progress” and lucid about the embattled state of the native people Håkan meets, the essentially stolen nature of the land he walks:

Håkan realized now that he had always thought that these vast territories were empty—that he had believed they were inhabited only during the short period of time during which travelers were passing through them, and that, like the ocean in the wake of a ship, solitude closed up after the riders. He further understood that all those travelers, himself included, were, in fact, intruders.

The history of America and its western conquest is bloody and horrifying, stupid with cruelty and ruin, and Diaz has no interest in reporting anything but these bitter truths. Yet Håkan emerges from the depths of experience again and again—like Lorimer’s mollusk—with the resilience and animal intuition to keep moving forward toward the unattainable goal, the unknowable future. Diaz’s astonishing accomplishment with In the Distance is to make Håkan’s journey both utterly devastating and ultimately hopeful.  

Hernan Diaz is the author of the novel In the Distance (Coffee House Press, 2017), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Borges, between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury, 2012). His work has appeared in Cabinet, Granta, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, and The Paris Review, among others. Diaz is the managing editor of the Revista Hispánica Moderna and the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University.

return to top