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The Last Great Road Bum

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MCD × FSG, 2020
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Héctor Tobar

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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.

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  • Praise for The Last Great Road Bum“[A] hybrid narrative of travel, rebellion, swagger, restlessness and indignation... Some younger writers and readers may not realize how big a pile of yellowing paper a life of writing could amount to in a world before computers and random-access memory. In Joe Sanderson’s case it was monumental, an enormous task to sort through, and Tobar became a ruminative Rumpelstiltskin, spinning this straw into gold . . . Tobar does a heroic job making sense of a two-decade stash of material and bringing this soldier of fortune to life, in all his maddening contradictions . . . The book illustrates how such a wanderer is continually in search of the accidental, and how such laborious travel is transformative. It may not be a true novel or his full biography but it is certainly an eloquent epitaph.”

    Paul Theroux, The New York Times Book Review“A remarkably juicy true story… [Joe Sanderson’s] death - at age 39 - should be tragic and terrible, yet in Mr. Tobar’s hands it reads like a triumphant arrival.”
  • “A remarkably juicy true story . . . [Joe Sanderson’s] death - at age 39 - should be tragic and terrible, yet in Mr. Tobar’s hands it reads like a triumphant arrival.”

    –Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

  • “[A] hybrid narrative of travel, rebellion, swagger, restlessness and indignation . . . An eloquent epitaph.”

    —Paul Theroux, The New York Times Book Review