By Chet Yarbrough
In the Distance
By Hernan Diaz
Narrated by Peter Berkrot
Hernan Diaz (Author)
“In the Distance” can be viewed from different perspectives. It is a story of emigration, isolation, survival, self-identity, human nature, extortion, and distortion. The author, Hernan Diaz, is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but fails to win. Diaz’s writing is unquestionably evocative and compelling but there is an aimlessness in the story that diminishes its appeal.
Emigrating to America in the mid-nineteenth century, Diaz’s main character is accidently separated from his brother and arrives in California rather than New York, presumably between 1849 and 1855 (the gold rush).
The story begins when a tall and muscular Swedish immigrant swims out of frigid water to astonished travelers on an ice bound ship, sailing in Alaskan waters. The Swede’s name is Hakan Soderstrom who is known by some as a legend named Hawk. Hawk tells his life story to the astounded travelers.
Hawk is the younger of the two brothers who emigrated to America. His older brother is alleged to have gotten separated in their departure, He lands in New York while Hawk lands in California. Hawk depends on his older brother for guidance and decides to journey cross country to be reunited.
One can imagine how isolated an immigrant would be without anyone who can understand or help a young emigrant boy who only speaks a foreign language. Survival is dependent on finding one’s way in a wilderness of language and culture.
Diaz pictures gold rush days in California as a land of violence, greed, and survival.
Hawk adapts to his environment and creates a self-identity based on what he must do to survive. Hawk becomes acquainted with a family led by a miner who is looking for gold. The husband finds gold but is extorted by a gang of town thugs. The thugs abduct Hawk who becomes attracted by the woman who leads the gang. Hawk is growing into a man of extraordinary size and strength. He is corralled by the gang leader who uses Hawk as a sex slave. She sees Hawk’s future potential as an enforcer for the gang. Hawk has other ideas. He escapes captivity and heads east with the hope of finding his older brother.
As the story unwinds, Hawk grows to be a giant of a man. He never stops growing physically (a condition known as giantism today) and matures with an understanding of the natural world.
Hawk’s understanding of nature comes from an acquaintance, a naturalist who is searching for evidence of the origin of human life. This naturalist befriends Hawk and teaches him many things about human life.
The naturalist is a nature-born physician (ahead of his time) who understands the importance of sterilizing medical instruments used to treat wounds and how poultices may be used to heal infections. Hawk gains understanding of many medical treatments, but more importantly, recognizes the sanctity of human life from the practices of the naturalist. The naturalist dies and once again Hawk is isolated and on his own.
Heading east, Hawk learns how to survive in nature. He makes a great lion-head cloak from the skins of animals that he kills for food.
Hawk survives severe weather conditions by creating shelters from whatever nature has to offer.
His shelter reminds this listerner of an underground shelter photographed in Turkey in 2o19– carved in earth by ancient Christians to protect themselves.
Hawk eventually returns to society by joining a group of settlers traveling cross country. The settlers are beholding to a flimflam leader that promises land when they arrive at their destination. This leader recruits Hawk as an enforcer without Hawk fully understanding why. Hawks giant size is what the leader needs to keep the settler’s in line.
The settlers and their leader are attacked by white renegades who disguise themselves as Indians. They attack a young girl to which Hawk is drawn. Hawk reacts by murdering the white renegades. The renegades are rebels from an unspecified religion, implied to be excommunicated Mormons. The re-telling of the massacre is distorted by public reports of the incident. Hawk becomes a legend who kills brothers of the church and innocent women and children. A price is put on Hawk’s head for a crime he did not commit.
Hawk’s actions become a widely known story that becomes distorted with its re-telling.
Hawk is eventually captured by brethren of the church. He is tortured and mutilated but he survives with the help of a male brethren who believes Hawk is innocent. They become close friends, maybe lovers, but other brethren of the church eventually find them, and Hawk’s friend is killed. The legend of Hawk continues but after the loss of his friend, he returns to years of isolation. He grows older and bigger but, through self-isolation, avoids capture.
Hawk is finally found by several rebellious uniformed soldiers who try to recruit him as their leader. They reason Hawk could strike fear into anyone they choose to rob because of his legend and immense size. Hawk sneaks away from the miscreants by preparing a dinner laced with a narcotic.
The story’s ending is all that is left. It ends where it begins. “In the Distance” offers some interest to a listener. However, to this listener, Diaz’s tale is more interesting because of its prose than its content.