In the first scene of In the Distance, like the first mark on a blank sheet of paper, Håkan is the only speck of color blotting an otherwise white winterland. After emerging from his ice bath, Håkan tells his life’s story to fellow passengers on an icebound vessel headed to Alaska.
Upon arrival in America from Sweden, teenage Håkan sets out to find the brother he lost track of before his voyage. He is taken in by a family of gold diggers, then captured by a band of robbers. After his escape, he assists scientist-doctor Lorimer, who teaches him about the origins of the universe through anatomy. Then he joins a caravan under the direction of a controversial guide. After defending these travelers from marauders, he earns his legendary reputation as a giant, a beast, a baby killer, the infamous Hawk, a wanted man. He avoids civilization, living off the land, trapping and skinning beasts to cover his ever-growing body. After years alone, he approaches a town, where no one recognizes that he is the star of the play citizens enact about him. Reminiscent of the “the only organism ever truly created” and distorted by all that follow—that which Lorimer searched for in the salt flats—Håkan leaves town, reassured that his own self is his best disguise.
Debut author Hernan Diaz depicts a bonafide Western character, an original born in the spirit of expansion and innovation and formed by “the business of being that took up all his time.” Jorge Luis Borges’ influence on Diaz is palpable in his pithy prose; lists convey the sparsity of Håkan’s surroundings and the emptiness that feeds him again and again on his circular path. Diaz is bound to join ranks with Borges on the literary scene with this mythical personality, still at large in our consciousness long after we’ve put down the book.