I hadn’t heard of this novel until it was nominated on the released ballot for the Pulitzer Prize, which is already a weird system. You might guess this, but I like to read the nominees ahead of time.
Anyway, I made some dumb assumptions about this novel going in. I figured that in 2018, a writer with a Hispanic last name with a cover overlooking a desert might be writing about border issues.
This is a book about a larger than life Swedish immigrant living in Alaska, with a life full of mythologized tales of his past, telling his true story to his new companions.
It’s something else. It’s a very beautifully written novel about not so beautiful subjects. In a lot of ways, it’s a kind of reverse Blood Meridian….the slow unfolding of actual myths into the not-so-pretty or exciting truths. Or it’s like the Berrybender Chronicles of Larry McMurtry, whose tone shifts from farcical to serious by the end. This novel tells of young Hakan becoming less Swedish and more American and completely alienated throughout, as he’s put to about the worst someone can be put to in the new United States.
He’s mistreated, he’s subjected to violence, he’s mistaken for a murderer, and he has to commit his only violence. And having come to the US as a child, he’s lost his sense of being Swedish other than his language. I am not sure how this novel all came together, and for a relatively short book, it’s a very dense and complex one as well. It’s a satisfying book that comes to a close before the story wears thin (since the whole experience is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding).