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Randi Kreiss

OK, don’t travel, but read ‘In the Distance’

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Aman walks into a publishing house. It isn’t the first place he’s gone to peddle his first novel. In fact, he has solicited numerous publishers around town in the hope of finding a buyer. He is unknown as a fiction writer, a professor at Columbia University whose only major work is a biography of Jorge Luis Borges.

He connects with Coffee House Press, a tiny, independent, nonprofit publisher of artsy stuff. It buys his manuscript, expecting it will be a modest entry into the world of hard-to-categorize literature. Somehow, all the stars align, and his book, “In the Distance” becomes a finalist for both the Penn/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize in literature.

This is a strange and wonderful thing, as is the book, a 256-page work that, according to the Pulitzer judges, is “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.”

Highfalutin language, but here’s why you need to read this book: Great books are like magic carpets that carry us out of our troubled lives, and, my friends, we have troubles. I led a discussion of “In the Distance” last week, as the coronavirus cases spiked and the stock market tanked. While enmeshed in the pages of the story, I couldn’t think about anything else.

We meet Hakan, a lad from Sweden, who makes his way to America before the Civil War and sets out, first heading east (because he landed on the West Coast by mistake) and then heading west, searching for his long-lost brother. Some reviewers note that this is a subversive Western, taking the clichéd tropes of the hearty pioneers, the industrious gold miners, the savage Indians, the gritty western towns, the fearsome natural world and turning it all inside out.

Like other wanderers before him, Hakan, who speaks no English and is a callow youth and then a man of monstrous size, learns how to be a human being in the world, which these days, as never before, is a worthy endeavor. He travels from adventure to misadventure, finding luck and kindness and also savagery and abuse.

The author, who abhors violence and guns, writes some scenes that depict striking brutality, explaining that he needed a counterbalance to the moments of grace and love that he writes with such beauty and delicacy. There are descriptions that are hard to forget, like the bawdy house “lady” with infected gums that look like slimy worms.

We have read all the elements of the “go west, young man” adventure before, but Hernan Diaz makes it all new again, and necessary. Hakan’s character evokes Ishmael in “Moby-Dick” and “Frankenstein.” It is the story of how we become decent people, who teaches us how to live in our bodies and how we survive personal violence and debilitating loneliness. Diaz describes how, on an elemental level, humans may find succor in nature, and how we are destroying that gift. There is a chapter that unfolds on the dazzling white expanse of the Great Salt Lake that manages to thrill and strike terror at the same time.

So, the story is as old as the ages and as new as the headlines. Hakan is an immigrant, like all the pioneers and the white settlers. The “otherness” he encounters is written in the pages of today’s newspapers and the policies of an American government that seems to have forgotten that we all landed here from somewhere else. Loneliness is universal, and Hakan’s dark days resonate today, when so many people feel isolated and alone.

The story of the story and how it got published is the background music of the book — a one-off, a long shot, a fortuitous meeting of the minds. Diaz found Coffee House Press, and their union became a singular moment in contemporary literature.

Borges, the subject of Diaz’s biography, wrote, “I think that Paradise will be a kind of library.” I can only hope that “In the Distance” will be on the shelves.

Read the opening lines: “The hole, a broken star on the ice, was the only interruption on the white plain merging into the white sky. No wind, no life, no sound. A pair of hands came out of the water and groped for the edges of the angular hole. … A head emerged.”

After reading that, I dare you to put it down.

Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.