Hernan Diaz’s strange, absorbing novel “In the Distance” — the story of Håkan Söderström, a Swedish immigrant whose journey in the American West is fraught with confusion, loss, loneliness and seclusion — upends the romance and mythology of America’s Western experience and rugged individualism.
From the beginning, Håkan is in the wrong place. He traveled from Sweden with his older brother Linus to Portsmouth, England, where they were to leave for New York City. But the boy loses track of his brother and boards the vessel alone. The ship leaves without Linus and heads for San Francisco instead of New York.
In this foreign place, where the language is a “mudslide of runny, slushy sounds that did not exist in his mother tongue,” his name is transliterated to “Hawk.” His only desire is to find the brother who protected him and endowed the world with meaning.
While thousands of families make the perilous journey West with the promise of a better life, Håkan can’t wait to go East. But he has little to guide him in a wild landscape of deserts, mountains and prairies.
Along his circuitous route he encounters scalawags, religious zealots, sadistic lawmen, thieves, wagon trains, learned and spiritual men, and frontier towns full of the desperate and despicable (bringing to mind the television series “Deadwood”).
The book is filled with stories covering a spectrum of human behavior from the generous and benevolent to greedy, violent and depraved.
I was most engaged with a chapter involving John Lorimer, a scientist from Scotland who befriends Hawk, seeing in him “qualities worth nurturing.” Hawk becomes his assistant in a study of unidentified species in the West. He learns to use a scalpel with the surgical precision needed to dissect small animals for the study of their anatomies. This skill plays a crucial role in Hawk’s survival.
Hawk grows into a colossal man, a frightening figure dressed in a coat made from the hide of a mountain lion that he stitched together with other animal skins. He is hailed as a hero who protected settlers from marauders and is wrongly accused of killing women and children. He is ashamed by the legend of his size and violent exploits that follows him wherever he goes.
I found the narrative, confined to Hawk’s mind, claustrophobic and yearned for him to break free from his closed-off life. While his struggle is clear, Hawk remains a mystery. Diaz’s take on the immigrant’s experience strikes me as a modern story. It resonated most strongly when my mind went to the millions of people on the move around the world today.
Elfrieda Abbe is a freelance book critic who last reviewed “The Story of Arthur Truluv” for the Star Tribune.
In the Distance
By: Hernan Diaz.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 256 pages, $16.95.