2018 fiction winner

Hernán Diaz | In the Distance

Hernan DiazAbout the author
Hernán Diaz is the author of Borges, Between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury 2012), managing editor of RHM, and associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University. He lives in New York.

About the book
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. Díaz defies the conventions of historical fiction and genre, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness.

Critics / Reviews
“A gorgeously written novel that charts one man’s growth from boyhood to mythic status as he journeys between continents and the extremes of the human condition.” — Pulitzer Prizes

“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.” — The New York Times

“Diaz cleverly updates an old-fashioned yarn, and his novel is rife with exquisite moments.” Publishers Weekly, boxed and starred review

“As Diaz, who delights in playful language, lists, and stream-of-consciousness prose, reconstructs [Hawk’s] adventures, he evokes the multicultural nature of westward expansion, in which immigrants did the bulk of the hard labor and suffered the gravest dangers. . . . An ambitious and thoroughly realized work of revisionist historical fiction.” Kirkus

“Stitched through with humor, this often-unpredictable novel will keep readers running along with every step of Håkan’s odd escapades.” Booklist

“Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance is exquisite: assured, moving, and masterful, as profound and precise an evocation of loneliness as any book I’ve ever read.” —Lauren Groff

Perhaps most striking is Diaz’s ability to describe the known as unknown, the all too familiar when it is yet unfamiliar. The nature of his protagonist, Håkan Söderström, a lost and wandering Swedish immigrant in the rough, largely uninhabited American territory, allows Diaz to write of what it is like to encounter the foreign or forgotten, such that the reader has a similarly enlightening experience, encountering it anew.” —Paris Review Daily

“While set in the American West, this is no conventional Western, as it turns the genre’s stereotypes upside down, taking place on a frontier as much mythic as real with a main character. . . . Resonant historical fiction with a contemporary feel.” Library Journal, starred review

     Through the light snowflakes that melted before touching the ground came the cry of a baby. As always, Håkan’s first reaction was to wrestle his horse and burro down. In the mist, the weeping continued. The small, airy drops felt like a cold halo hovering over his face, contrasting with the warm glow coming from the horse’s muscles twitching under his cheek. No voices of men or women. No jingling of harnesses or creaking of springs. No rumbling of wagons or tramping of beasts. Just the lonely wail. Håkan’s horse got restless, but he pressed on his neck and made him stay down. A long time went by. The weeping never stopped, always issuing from the same spot in the white mist. Other than the cries, complete silence. It stopped snowing. The fog thickened. Cramped and soaked, Håkan got up, mounted his horse, and rode into the crawling clouds. With each step, the wails grew louder. The plains barely insisted against the fog. Håkan got out his knife. As he moved along, the ground ahead of him faded into reality from the whiteness ahead. Then, in a slight depression by some shrubs, a lion took shape. It was lying in a pool of its own blood, lightened by the snowfall. Next to it, a wailing blind cub. It was getting hoarse. Håkan dismounted and immediately saw that the cougar had died trying to give birth to its second, breached offspring, still stuck halfway out. Håkan rolled the mother over and put the crying kitten to one of her teats. From its outstretched hind legs to its head, the lion was taller than Håkan. The cub nursed greedily. After a few moments, realizing that nothing came out, it started crying again. Håkan tried to milk the lion. Then, he went through his provisions and offered the kitten everything he had—charqui, sugar water, dried meat from different animals, oats, bacon, and moistened biscuits. Håkan now heard rage in the cub’s desperate cries. He made a cut into his own forearm and put the kitten’s snout to the blood, but it would not taste it. Håkan looked into the crying mouth and saw the ribbed vault of the palate, the sharp little teeth, and the white scales on the pink tongue. He smelled the clean breath coming from the empty stomach. Then he looked into the creature’s watery eyes and wrung its neck. Mother and cub were skinned.