The mythic qualities of Hernan Diaz’s novel, In the Distance, are distinctly American, recalling such figures as Paul Bunyan, Billy-the-Kid, even the bonding between Huck and Jim. Add in other American themes, especially the novel’s setting, and Diaz’s story (centering on immigration, the western settlement, plus endless space) and the result is a truly haunting narrative. To use Diaz’s own words from an interview about the novel, “Like detective fiction, it deals with a lawless world that craves order, but it is also concerned with nature and our place in it: is it where we find our lost innocence or just a source from which we extract wealth? It speaks to the American obsession with space and its exploration. It is the culmination of individualism. It offers a powerful ideological narrative of the birth of a nation—and, in the process, romanticizes the extermination of any ethnic group that stood in the way of the country’s expansion.” In other words, violently brutal.
It’s a surprise, then, that the story begins in a completely different context: a schooner, frozen in ice, somewhere in Alaska or further north. From a hole he’s cut in the ice, a naked old man emerges, having dropped into the frigid water to take a bath, perhaps the first time he’s washed himself so carefully for weeks, months, even years. He’s got a long beard and white hair, but his distinguishing mark is his height. He’s a giant, a colossus, and once he’s out of the water, he stands before the men on the ship “withered yet muscular, his frame had achieved a strangely robust emaciation. Finally, he wrapped himself in his homespun, which covered his head in a monkish way, walked to the hatch, and disappeared below deck.”
His name is Håkan, nicknamed Hawk, because no one can pronounce his name. As a boy, he emigrated with his brother from Sweden, though along the way (after the first journey that takes them to Portsmouth) he was separated from Linus. Neither knew a word of English. Both were intending to take a second ship to New York, but Håkan ended up on a ship that took him around the tip of South America and eventually to California. There, he discovers the objective of the other passengers: the gold rush. Believing that Linus took the intended ship to New York, Håkan has one goal: walk across the continent and locate his brother. That is his simplistic plan, certain that his pluck and determination will take him there and, finally, unite him with his brother.
The fantastic journey that follows is a lesson in inhumanity, violence, and mendacity. Most of the people Håkan encounters (during several decades) are con artists, villains, and crooks, even prostitutes, willing to take advantage of anyone and everything in order to further their own greed. They kill Indians indiscriminately, and when there are no Indians around, they kill each other. On one occasion, Håkan comes across an Indian village where most of the occupants have recently been massacred by whites, but this is actually a restorative moment because the one decent person he met earlier in his travels was a naturalist who trained Håkan in medicinal and surgical matters. Håkan heals many of the survivors, who are mostly women and children.
A second incident is much more unsettling because Håkan joins a wagon train of settlers going west and tries to defend them from a group of marauders dressed as Indians but men who are actually white. He manages to kill most of them, his superior height and weight making this believable, but the settlers are also massacred in the bloody skirmish. It is from that incident that Håkan gains the name Hawk, because the few survivors among the attackers accuse him of murdering the settlers. His fame, thus, is that of an outlaw, the guilty one, not the decent person he is, and that fame spreads widely over the unsettled western territory, making it impossible for him to associate with anyone for years. He lives by himself, hiding in caves and burrows, as he sporadically continues walking easterly in search of Linus in New York.
His mythic qualities continue as he, himself, continues to increase in height during the years of his singular quest. In one place far into the narrative, Diaz writes of his protagonist, “He had not seen another human being in years.” Thus, the issue finally becomes one of survival, daily eating what he gathers and kills, during his steady march (often riding a horse) through deserts, forests, over mountains and through canyons. “The business of being took up all of his time.” It’s a gorgeous journey, a profound homage to America’s natural beauty, plus the theme of living off the land as Håkan/Hawk keeps his eye on the distance, the future that he believes will finally restore his identity and unite him with his past.
Dip into Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance slowly, read a little bit at a time, enjoy the pure beauty of Hawk’s journey, his sense of being in America’s mythic past.
Hernan Diaz: In the Distance
Coffee House Press, 272 pp., $16.99