Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review: In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

There is a popular narrative about the settling of the American West. Streams of settlers set out from the East and made their way in covered wagons to the lands further west in search of a better life. These pioneers built farms, they encountered native peoples under both peaceful and hostile conditions, they panned and mined for the gold of their fever dreams, and they pushed ever forward in the promise of Manifest Destiny. There are variations on this tale, of course, but most variations do not generally veer too far from this imagined story. Hernan Diaz, though, has turned this story on its head in his novel, In the Distance, starting with an immigrant determined to get not from the East to California but from California to New York.

Hakan Soderstrom is an old man called The Hawk about whom many legends are told when he sits down on a ship bound for Alaska and tells his story. He and his brother Linus left their parents and their home in Sweden to travel to America. At a stopover in Portsmouth, Linus disappears and speaking no English, Hakan must try to find their boat to America himself. Instead of the one heading for New York that he assumes Linus caught, Hakan ends up on a boat making for San Francisco to land people close to the gold fields. The young boy intends to walk the breadth of the continent to find his brother and protector in New York. Along the way, he meets with a whole host of people, some of whom are willing to help him and others who want to use him for their own ends, but for the largest part of his journey, he is alone, reliant only on himself, what the few kind people he has encountered have taught him, and what nature provides.

The novel is written in soaring prose with evocatively described landscapes and echoes of Frankenstein's monster's journey. The Hawk is an epic figure, traveling mainly on foot across empty stretches of a new country and also journeying into the recesses his own soul. This is both a literal and a metaphorical quest for his brother and for home. The hardships that Hakan endures would have felled a lesser man. Diaz captures the emptiness of the land, the solitude, even in company, of the immigrant who cannot communicate in the language of the country, and the loss of the self to constructed myths told by others. Reading this felt like sitting out in the blazing sun for hours with time telescoping in and out, some pages seeming to last for days and others for seconds. It is a book about both existence and nothingness. Not for the reader who wants fast moving plot, but for one who will take the time to sink into the hypnotic maelstrom.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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