In the distance (Coffee House Press, 2017), by Hernán Díaz. In conversation with Gabe Habash.
A young Swedish immigrant finds himself penniless and alone in California. The boy travels east in search of his brother, moving on foot against the great current of emigrants pushing west. Driven back again and again, he meets naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen, and his exploits turn him into a legend. Díaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and genre, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness.
Praise for In the Distance
"Perhaps most striking is Díaz’s ability to describe the known as unknown, the all too familiar when it is yet unfamiliar. The nature of his protagonist, Håkan Söderström, a lost and wandering Swedish immigrant in the rough, largely uninhabited American territory, allows Diaz to write of what it is like to encounter the foreign or forgotten, such that the reader has a similarly enlightening experience, encountering it anew." —The Paris Review, "Staff Picks"
“A brilliant and fresh take on the old-school western . . . Díaz cleverly updates an old-fashioned yarn, and his novel is rife with exquisite moments . . . The book contains some of the finest landscape writing around.” —Publishers Weekly, boxed and starred review
“As Díaz, who delights in playful language, lists, and stream-of-consciousness prose, reconstructs [Hawk’s] adventures, he evokes the multicultural nature of westward expansion, in which immigrants did the bulk of the hard labor and suffered the gravest dangers. . . . An ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction.” —Kirkus
[In the Distance] is the story of a young Swedish emigrant to the United States, some time in the middle of the 19th century, which begins as a vividly observed and emotionally nuanced Western, and evolves into a kind of epic of loneliness, as our protagonist wanders farther and farther into the desolate landscapes of the West, and comes dizzyingly close to a psychic point of no return. It's a hero's journey, or possibly a monster's journey—the ending recalls the austere beauty of the last scenes of Frankenstein—and one of the great pleasures of Diaz's singular book is to observe the complicated ways in which the hero and the monster coexist. —BOMB, “Fall Books Preview”
"An immigrant saga with western trappings . . . Díaz may have staked out his desert landscape in the American West, but he isn’t particularly interested in the western per se. 'There are no gunslingers or saloon brawls or stagecoaches being chased in the book,' he says. For him, the desertlike atmosphere of the West carries its own truth about life in America. 'The vaster the desert, the more claustrophobic the confinement,' he says."—Publishers Weekly—Writers to Watch 2017: Anticipated Debuts
“In the Distance is a singular and haunting novel, an epic journey into the wilderness of nineteenth-century America and into the depths of solitude. In its majestic evocation of landscapes it bears a resemblance to Blood Meridian, but in the meditative precision of its language and the moral compass that spins at its heart, Díaz’s novel is a creature all its own, and it’s one of the very few works of fiction that transport you, emotionally and imaginatively, to an utterly new place. It’s a breathtaking trip.” —Paul La Farge
“If I could hand you this book I would. Read this. Hernán Díaz’s In the Distance is a portrait of this country as both a dreamscape and a living nightmare. With echoes of John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Andrey Platonov’s Soul, and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, this is fiction at its finest—propulsive, unsettling, wildly ambitious, and an unforgettable journey that we will certainly return to in the years to come.” —Paul Yoon, author of The Mountain
“In the Distance by Hernán Díaz sends a shotgun blast through standard received notions of the Old West and who was causing trouble in it. Håkan and his adventures, which are truly extraordinary, not to mention beautifully written, had me from the novel’s first striking chapter to the last.” —Laird Hunt
“On its surface, In the Distance is a haunting and unique tale of survival—with all the thrilling frustrations of such. Deeper still, it is a story about the devastation wrought by the American Dream—the West as it happened to many, in spite of all they’d hoped.” —Colin Winnette
“Great stories are driven by desire. Håkan Söderström, the remarkable protagonist of Hernán Díaz’s In the Distance, sets off on an unremitting quest to find his brother. As he journeys against the grain of the frontier, Håkan confronts lust, love, honor, greed, and confounding betrayal. He also crafts a solitude that becomes, in Díaz’s skilled hands, as American as the landscape. In prose that is as bold as the western sky, Díaz has written an unforgettable tale of soulfulness and survival.” —Alyson Hagy, author of Boleto
“While In the Distance can be read as a revisionist western—and totally enjoyed and chewed on as such—what makes Díaz’s book truly exceptional is how far beyond a simple genre it goes. A beautiful, thoughtful, and often heartbreaking exploration of lonesomeness, the simple confusion of just living, and the magnificent need for human connection.” —Justin Souther, Malaprop’s Bookstore
"You wouldn’t expect a novel that begins with a man crawling his way out of an ice bath to take you through the wild expanses of the nineteenth-century American territory—with its accompanying cast of natives, immigrants, scientists, and bandits—but that’s exactly what Hernan Diaz’s first novel, In the Distance, does. Perhaps most striking is Diaz’s ability to describe the known as unknown, the all too familiar when it is yet unfamiliar. The nature of his protagonist, Håkan Söderström, a lost and wandering Swedish immigrant in the rough, largely uninhabited American territory, allows Diaz to write of what it is like to encounter the foreign or forgotten, such that the reader has a similarly enlightening experience, encountering it anew. When Håkan sees the human form for the first time in ages, I feel as though I am, too: “Those flailing arms sticking out of the upright trunk. Those legs, like ridiculous scissors. Those forward-facing eyes on that flat face with that beakless, snoutless hole for a mouth. And the gestures. Hands, brow, nose, lips. So many gestures. Those misshapen and misplaced features and their wasteful, obscene movements. He thought nothing could be more grotesque than those forms. His next thought was that he looked just like them.” —Joel Pinckney
Hernán Díaz is the author of Borges, between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury, 2012), managing editor of RHM, and associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University.
Gabe Habash is the author of the novel Stephen Florida and the fiction reviews editor for Publishers Weekly. He holds an MFA from New York University and lives in New York.