cover image In the Distance

In the Distance

Hernán Diaz. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-56689-488-3

In Diaz’s debut, a brilliant and fresh take on the old-school western, a young Swedish immigrant named Håkan is separated from his brother, Linus, en route to America. Håkan lands in San Francisco knowing only that he must get to New York to find Linus, but his journey becomes a series of increasingly dangerous episodes. He becomes a sexual hostage of a saloon owner with “black, gleaming, toothless gums, streaked with bulging veins of pus”; is roped into a kooky naturalist’s search in a dried-out seabed for a jellyfishlike proto-organism that supposedly created mankind; and is forced to kill marauders in self-defense. This latter episode leads to word spreading around the western territory that Håkan is an outlaw legend who literally keeps growing and growing in size, and, indeed, he becomes a giant by the book’s end. Diaz cleverly updates an old-fashioned yarn, and his novel is rife with exquisite moments: Håkan has moving relationships with a horse named Pingo and another traveler named Asa, there’s a drug-induced sequence in which Håkan looks at his own brain, and Håkan’s very limited grasp of English heightens the suspense of his tense encounters. The book contains some of the finest landscape writing around, so potent because it reflects Håkan’s solitude: “Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.” (Oct.)