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Review: In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

Tall tales and the Wild West go together like gamblers and whiskey, and the yarn at the center of literary scholar Hernan Diaz’ debut western, In TheDistance, is a doozy: a giant of a man named Hawk roams the plains wearing a cape of animal skins, the head of a lion serving as a hood. He single-handily laid waste to entire camp, and escaped capture by riding away on the sheriff’s horse. A man so revered and feared legend had it “he was offered his own territory by the Union, like a state, with his own laws and all. Just to keep him away.”

The novel opens with the myth, then Diaz shifts back in time to establish the truth: young Håkan Soderstrom and his brother Linus became separated as they emigrated from Sweden to the States. Linus traveled to New York while Håkan, whose name was mispronounced as  “Hawk,” lands alone, penniless, knowing almost no English, in California.

Determined to find his brother, Håkan begins a slow and eventful journey across the States, where he befriends gold diggers, is captured as a sex slave, and learns anatomy and surgical techniques from a naturalist and an elder Native American.

But the event that cements his fame occurs while defending a camp – and a beloved young girl – from a pack of murderous religious fanatics. As he kills the men, one by one, Håkan felt “for the first time in his life…the full extent of his own size and the power that came with it,” while simultaneously experiencing “the sorrow and senselessness that came with each act: those worth defending were already dead, and each of his killings made his own struggle for self-perseveration less justifiable.”

Thus begins Håkan’s decent into depression and grief, living for years alone with only his horse and mule for company. And while the meditative passages of Håkan’s environmental and cerebral observations slow the narrative considerably, just wait: the most moving and heartbreaking of Håkan’s adventures are just along the next ridge.

An infectious story of one man’s quest for solitude and understanding, In the Distance is a noteworthy, original debut.