A young Swedish immigrant finds himself penniless and alone in California. The boy travels East in search of his brother, moving on foot against the great current of emigrants pushing West. Driven back again and again, he meets naturalists, criminals, religious fanatics, swindlers, Indians, and lawmen, and his exploits turn him into a legend. A finalist for the 2018 PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2019 winner of the Whiting Award.
So begins a page-turning adventure story that’s also a profound meditation on solitude and companionship, foreignness and home; a bildungsroman in the grand 19th-century tradition that is also a fierce critique of the romanticised myths of the settlement of the American west ... It’s a thrilling narrative, full of twists and turns, that sees Håkan make the journey from young boy to 'stupendously tall man'; and from innocence to experience – David Copperfield with a twist of Tarantino and Deadwood perhaps, or Great Expectations shot through with a dose of True Grit and Blood Meridian ... And yet that’s not quite a fair description. What Diaz pulls off here is that rare feat of drawing on literary and filmic traditions, only to conjure something completely fresh and strange. In the Distance is a brutal, sad, tender coming-of-age story, set in a historical past that feels both familiar and at the same time like nothing we’ve ever encountered before ... a singular and deeply affecting portrait of one man’s life in a rapidly changing world, unlike any old-school or revisionist western I’ve experienced.
Though many of its elements are familiar to the point of being worn out — saloons and wagon trains, Indians and gold prospectors — the novel is not ... The rebuilt mechanism is his own design, and it moves in unexpected directions: west to east, around in circles, down into the earth, and north to Alaska ... Håkan starves and thirsts. He survives and grows, in sorrowful wisdom and, inexplicably, to colossal size. And though he murders and maims and becomes a notorious outlaw, he is disgusted, and ultimately shattered, by his violence ... What [Diaz] concocted is strange and transporting, a story that approaches but never enters the realm of magical realism ... It’s a weirdness to which a reader willingly submits, because of the vigorous beauty of his words and his ability to keep Håkan’s bizarre adventures somewhere within sight of possibility ... An affecting oddness is the great virtue of In the Distance, along with its wrenching evocations of its main character’s loneliness and grief. And its ability to create lustrous mindscapes from wide-open spaces, from voids that are never empty.
Neither Hakan nor the reader can calculate how much time has passed in his wanderings; or which expanses of land he has passed through. Guided by the stars, or the remembrance that his brother once told him that a new sun rises each day, he blends with his surroundings, half-man, half-animal, covering himself with the pelts of the creatures he has killed and eaten in order to survive and protect himself against the freezing winters and devastating summers ... the only reference to significant historical incident such as the American civil war, for example, is made when Hakan briefly encounters soldiers merely described as men dressed in blue and grey. Ultimately it is not his quest to be reunited with his brother that impels the novel: it is a good old-fashioned yearning of the human spirit, and a beautifully commodious meditation on its absolute unknowability.