One of the Los Angeles Times Top 10 California Books of 2020. One of Publishers Weekly’s Top 10 Fiction Books from 2020. Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the Joyce Carol Oates prize. One of Exile in Bookville’s Favorite Books of 2020.
In The Last Great Road Bum, Héctor Tobar turns the peripatetic true story of a naive son of Urbana, Illinois, who died fighting with guerrillas in El Salvador into the great American novel for our times.
Joe Sanderson died in pursuit of a life worth writing about. He was, in his words, a “road bum,” an adventurer and a storyteller, belonging to no place, people, or set of ideas. He was born into a childhood of middle-class contentment in Urbana, Illinois and died fighting with guerillas in Central America. With these facts, acclaimed novelist and journalist Héctor Tobar set out to write what would become The Last Great Road Bum.
A decade ago, Tobar came into possession of the personal writings of the late Joe Sanderson, which chart Sanderson’s freewheeling course across the known world, from Illinois to Jamaica, to Vietnam, to Nigeria, to El Salvador—a life determinedly an adventure, ending in unlikely, anonymous heroism.
The Last Great Road Bum is the great American novel Joe Sanderson never could have written, but did truly live—a fascinating, timely hybrid of fiction and nonfiction that only a master of both like Héctor Tobar could pull off.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
There’s no simple way to describe Joe Sanderson. Words like “traveler” or “adventurer” don’t quite do justice to an individual so restless that he eventually died fighting in another country’s civil war. In this fantastic blend of real events and invented scenes, Pulitzer-winning journalist Héctor Tobar introduces us to a fascinating, larger-than-life man we’d never even heard of before. Bored by his comfortable suburban upbringing, Sanderson threw himself into travel starting in the 1960s, searching for experiences he could transform into the Great American Novel. Tobar draws on Sanderson’s unpublished diaries, letters, and works of fiction to track the thrill seeker’s journeys all over the globe, culminating in his participation in a 1983 rebel uprising against the military-led government of El Salvador. A seamless blend of fact and fiction, The Last Great Road Bum reads like a cross between On the Road and Into the Wild. Joe Sanderson never got the chance to write his big novel—lucky for us, Tobar has the skills and talent to finish the job.
Tobar's stunning follow-up to Deep Down Dark draws from the unbelievable true story of Joe Sanderson, a peripatetic would-be-writer who left a comfortable existence in Urbana, Ill., in order to travel the world in search of material for a great American novel. Instead, he found romance, danger, and the dark heart of the mid-20th century. After falling in love with life on the road in 1960 as a high school senior traveling alone in Mexico City, Joe hitchhikes his way across Jamaica, narrowly escaping a government crackdown on the Rastas he'd fallen in with. Then it's on to South America, where Joe embraces the life of a vagabond before setting out again and experiencing historical events across the globe. In Saigon, he surveys the aftermath of the Tet Offensive; and in Biafra, he crisscrosses war zones in emulation of his heroes Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. All the while, Joe begins writing and occasionally finishes unpublishable novels with titles like The Prince of Castaways, Caledonia, and The Silver Triangle. Working from a massive archive of Sanderson's letters, journals, and doomed forays into fiction, Tobar discovers the real story in Joe's life, following him into his fateful decision to join the paramilitary rebels in El Salvador. Throughout, Joe appears in footnotes to dispute the veracity of the account of Tobar, the "Guatemalan dude" who fictionalized his remarkable life. No matter; Tobar brilliantly succeeds in capturing Joe's guileless yearning for adventure through high-velocity prose that is both relentless and wry. Tobar's wild ride achieves a version of Kerouac for a new age.