There was a moment near the end (that I won’t spoil for you) when I realized just how special In the Distance is, how much Diaz had played with our expectations, stretched the norms of storytelling, and created something totally unique. It’s a moment when (OK, a tiny spoiler) essentially nothing happens, but the way that nothing happens shows the real depth of Diaz’s novel.
In some ways, In the Distance is a classic adventure novel, the story of one young man’s fight against the elements and society, and in some ways, In the Distance is a classic Western complete with cowboys, caravans, and a gunfight, and in some ways In the Distance is a classic bildungsroman as a young man grows into adulthood over the course of his journey. But In the Distance is also the opposite of an adventure novel, focused more on our powerlessness in the face of forces greater than ourselves, and In the Distance is also an anti-Western, puncturing all the myths of the Old West while spending more time on nature and the landscape than saloons and cattle-rustlers, and in In the Distance is also opposed to the idea of the bildungsroman as the growth of the protagonist is closer to the relentless growth of a tree than the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth of a person.
Hakan intends to emigrate to New York with his older brother, but ends up alone and on a boat that goes to San Francisco instead. In the Distance is the story of Hakan trying to get to New York to reunite with his brother. Along the way he encounters a corrupt brothel madam, a scientist, a caravan being lead by a religious fanatic or a con-man (maybe both) and, eventually, an officer of the law who sets him free and becomes the closest thing to a companion Hakan ever has. He becomes a folk legend. He never stops growing so that he is a giant by the time we see him as an older man. He has one more epic journey left in him at the end.
But what might be most interesting about In the Distance is just how much space there is in the book, how much landscape, how much environment. It is easy to forget in our hyperconnected world just how big the American West was and how much empty space there still is. Books are often praised for “making the landscape a character” and Diaz does that to an extent, but, as with the other forms In the Distance resembles, Diaz does something different. He presents a landscape that does not gaze back and an environment that does not care whether human beings are moving through it or not.
In the Distance walks a narrow line between the familiar and the strange creating a totally unique reading experience by always pushing on our expectations until something breaks. It’s another great book from one of our best small presses and should be the 2017 Pick of the Year.