Life on the Road Is More Than Inspiration for Your Novel

Héctor Tobar gives fictional travelogues an intervention with the cheeky, self-aware The Last Great Road Bum.

The Atlantic

In 1982, a reporter for The New York Times, Raymond Bonner, spent two weeks in the rebel-controlled mountains of Morazán, El Salvador, documenting the lives of guerrilla fighters. Spurred by long-standing grievances, the “indigenous revolution” consisted of peasants born and raised in Morazán, many of whom had at least one family member who’d been killed by government soldiers. There was, however, one notable exception. “The most popular and best-known foreigner in the zone is a 39-year-old North American who goes by the name of ‘Lucas,’” Bonner wrote. “He said he came … with the intention of writing … but that he has since also been involved in some combat missions.”

Lucas’s real name was Joe Sanderson, a blue-eyed gringo from Urbana, Illinois, and a perma-traveler who died fighting alongside his compañeros in El Salvador. A restless globe-trotter, Sanderson thumbed his way around 70-some countries, all in pursuit of writing the next Great American Novel. He thought of violent political uprisings as premium fodder for his novel-to-be and, to this end, deliberately sought out conflict zones in Vietnam, Nigeria, and El Salvador.

"The Last Great Road Bum" by Hector Tobar

Sanderson wrote thousands of pages of manuscript chronicling his travels, none of which were ever published. But now, aided by correspondences, newly unearthed diaries, and interviews with Sanderson’s family, his ex-lovers, and former rebel fighters, the author and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Héctor Tobar has reconstructed his remarkable life in The Last Great Road Bum. With some liberties, that is. The book challenges Sanderson’s archetypal wanderer qualities—his white maleness, his writerly aspirations, his roving voyeurism—not by treating him as the husk of a bygone era, but by cheekily interpolating commentary in his life story.

The result is a very different kind of road narrative. “The Protagonist of this book was a real person who tried to become a novelist by living his life like a character in a novel,” Tobar writes in the introduction. He himself has created that novel: The principal voices are that of the author (Tobar) and the protagonist (Sanderson). The main text, written by the author, is from Sanderson’s perspective—but Tobar also has the protagonist weigh in, via footnotes, about his life and the author’s representation of it. The protagonist butts in early and doesn’t pull any punches: “The Author is getting impatient with my aimlessness. He’s starting to compress my life, squeezing years into paragraphs.” The effect is jarring at first, but once the reader grasps the dynamic, these scuffles become anticipated flash points.

The setup allows Tobar to act like a master puppeteer and stage moments of dialogue, ranging from friendly ribbing to razor-sharp criticisms. He uses these layered voices to air authorial concerns over dated conventions of the road novel (valorized masculinity, disaster or colonial tourism). This choice allows Tobar to contextualize—even apologize for—Sanderson’s juvenile, thrill-seeking life (“I was a product of my age”) and to acknowledge his own complicity. Writing, after all, can also be a form of plunder. “I guess the Author is just as mesmerized by the spectacle as I was,” the protagonist jeers in response to a passage detailing carnage from the Vietnam War. “Like me, the Author is sleepwalking through the battlefields, past the corpses, as if they’d all been arranged for him to see.”

The line, in its self-awareness, is striking to read, and a reminder that The Last Great Road Bum aims to straddle two eras of the road novel: the swashbuckling freedom fantasies of earlier decades and more recent explorations that have, in part, questioned those very freedoms and their preconditions. In the hands of Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, two writers Sanderson admired, travel narratives exalt the freedoms of life on the road, especially freedom from responsibility. “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt,” Kerouac writes in On the Road. In a post-frontier America, Kerouac found possibility in movement itself. This propulsive focus led to his long, gasbag sentences, ballooned to maximize the present, but also to crowd out any thought of past obligations or future consequences.

In the past few years, Afterland, by Lauren Beukes, and The Golden State, by Lydia Kiesling, have introduced, among other things, the dynamics of motherhood to the road novel. In Wandering in Strange Lands, the author Morgan Jerkins drove to the Deep South to learn about her family roots and, taking a page from The Green Book, a guide for black people navigating the Jim Crow South, addresses moving through former “sundown towns.” In such stories, life on the road isn’t simply unfettered physical mobility driven by curiosity or restlessness; it can also come with difficulties and hostilities.

With a baby in tow, for instance, the perils sharpen. Unlike On the Road’s narrator, Sal Paradise, the protagonist in The Golden State has a “checklist” before leaving, an early indicator that much of the novel will deal with the protagonist attending to Honey, her baby. “Honey should have a bath and definitely she must brush her teeth even though she hates hates hates it and then we will have milk and story and crib and it’s an hour away at least and then night and then the day begins and we do everything over again, and somewhere in there I have to make decisions earn us money find my husband,” and so on. Kiesling’s breathless sentences resemble those of Kerouac, but the tone here is tired, not wired; exasperated, rather than exuberant. Nevertheless, what animates these protagonists, what animates Joe Sanderson and Sal Paradise, is a longing to find one’s place in a messy world.

In dialoguing with his central character, Tobar cleverly makes narrative space for these complexities. The protagonist’s commentary in the footnotes is Tobar’s main avenue for dramatizing the genre’s growing pains. Tobar takes care to chart Sanderson’s incremental political awakening to show that life on the road need not be frivolous; it can be instructive too. “The racial laws here are crimes in themselves,” reads one postcard Sanderson sent home from apartheid South Africa. Though that message could have been stamped from anywhere U.S.A., at a time when the civil-rights movement was intent on dismantling Jim Crow, Sanderson’s moral clarity surfaced because of his observations on the road. That he achieved it by witnessing conflict and suffering is fraught, but also potent.

“The open road has the power to transform and enlighten us,” Tobar wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. “When we stop going out there, on the road, we become a smaller people.” I understand this sentiment. Like Sanderson, I grew up restless in the Midwest and have had the privilege to travel widely: road trips out West, a bicycle tour through Europe, semesters abroad in Guatemala and Mexico. I cherish these experiences. The bigness of the world and the many lives one can live is humbling, dumbfounding. Still travel, very often, can be self-serving. You are gone the next day. You can learn a lot from living on the road, but life on the road is so demanding that it can be hard to lift your head past the horizon of the highway stripe. When everything is up for grabs, you are busy living it. Travel lends itself to self-reflection more than action.

What distinguishes Sanderson’s life story is that his growing sense of the world did lead to action, when he relinquished his transient lifestyle to serve the rebel cause in El Salvador. Recognizing his physical mobility in a new light, Sanderson leveraged his whiteness, playing the part of an aloof gringo on vacation while scouting army-controlled territory. Sanderson’s previous visits to conflict zones were more self-serving than anything—convenient admission to a theater of violence that might inspire a novel. But meaningful political action, like good writing, requires a long-standing commitment, something that is by and large incompatible with a vagabond lifestyle. To act on the lessons of the road, perhaps one must retire one’s boots.

Any question of Tobar’s sympathies are laid to rest in the final pages of the novel in the moments leading up to Sanderson’s death. “At this moment,” Tobar writes, “he was not Joe anymore, or even Lucas [his nom de guerre], but instead he was a compañero.” Tobar granted Sanderson, perennially viewed as an outsider, what eludes so many journeying narratives: a sense of belonging.