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The Last Great Road Bum

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Digital, 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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An excerpt from The Last Great Road Bum

Joe asked his father to take him hunting.

“With any firearm in your hands, you really can’t allow your attention

to wander, Joe. Understand?” They drove an hour outside town, past carpets of collapsed cornstalks turning gray in the rain, and past a stretch of woods where fallen, rain-moistened  leaves were blackening into mulch. They reached a pastel prairie with jasmine-colored switchgrass, and the violet seed heads of big bluestem grass, and they stopped, squatted and waited. A single wild pheasant settled into the grass about twenty yards away. 

“Remember: shoot where it’s going to be,” Milt said, and he brought his cold hands together in a loud clap. The pheasant startled and took flight, and Joe took a half step forward and fired, and the pellets struck the bird about six feet off the ground. Feathers exploded into black confetti and the bird fell into the grass with a thud.

Thirteen months later, when Christmas came around again, Milt bought Joe a .22 Remington rifle. Joe lifted it from its box and took in the solventy scent of the rifle’s lubricants, the milled ball of its bolt and the walnut grain of its stock. Milt thought it was as good a time as any to tell his son the family gunman stories again. Great-Grandpa Frank was very handy

with a rifle. Ran away from home when he was twelve—left Maine and made it all the way to South Dakota. Lived with the Sioux for a while, and made friends with Wild Bill Hickok. Got a job on the railroad and went on strike with the socialists; he took Milt on his first hunt.

For target practice with his new rifle, Joe took long rides on his bicycle and hikes outside the Urbana-Champaign city limits. To the Mahomet woods and beyond. Rimfire cartridges, brass bodies and silver heads, remembering his father’s lessons. “A rifle is different from a shotgun. You point a shotgun, but you aim a rifle. Breathe three times and squeeze the

trigger as slowly as you can. The rifle is going to recoil. You can’t allow your fear of the recoil to make you jerk the gun.” After he bought a telescopic sight Joe could hit a squirrel from seventy-five yards.


  • 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.”

    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.”
  • 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