Drawing from a discovered cache of journals, letters and unpublished fiction, Héctor Tobar’s third novel, The Last Great Road Bum, follows the true peregrinations of Joe Sanderson, denizen of Urbana, Illinois. Privileged and corn-fed, Joe goes where his whim takes him, and his family even pays for him to do so, their money wired to embassies all over the world. You might grit your teeth with resentment if Joe weren’t so openhearted—and if Tobar weren’t such a wizard of a writer.
Joe’s journey begins on a teenage lark when he hitchhikes out of Urbana and ends up in Jamaica with a band of welcoming Rastafarians. But the tale darkens as he gets a glimpse of the Vietnam War and then the horrifying famine in Biafra. Throughout his travels, Joe witnesses suffering that radicalizes him, though his letters home remain almost aggressively cheery. After more rousting about, he stumbles into a group of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador. It’s among these dedicated compas, some still in their teens, that the last great road bum finds his purpose.
Third-person narration weaves with Joe’s stream of consciousness, so we’re privy to not only his thoughts and observations, which flit from topic to topic like the butterflies he used to catch as a child, but also the thoughts of his mother, his fellow compas and even people he meets briefly. Quirky endnotes conclude each chapter. This structure lends propulsion and unexpected cohesion to a tale that would have been haphazard without it. A work of fiction and sort of true, The Last Great Road Bum is brilliant in its contemplation of a particularly American restlessness, innocence and foolishness.