'The Last Great Road Bum': The Life Of Adventurer Joe Sanderson Explored
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Joe Sanderson always wanted to write a great novel. He died without ever getting one published. So the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist Hector Tobar picked up the baton. Tobar spent a decade going through Joe Sanderson's papers, letters, diaries, manuscripts, and now he tells the story of Joe Sanderson's life in the new novel "The Last Great Road Bum."
Hector Tobar, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
HECTOR TOBAR: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: Why were you so interested in this man?
TOBAR: Well, you know, he just led this extraordinary life, and it ended with one of the great adventures I had ever read, you know, just going through his diary. He's this guy from a college town, Urbana, Ill., who at the age of 38, 39, after 20 years of road bumming around the world, talks his way into a revolution in El Salvador. Now, I'm Central American. My family's from Guatemala. And I just know the Salvadoran Civil War was this incredible event. And Joe lived it intimately. He became a member of a guerrilla army. And I thought if this isn't a book, nothing is.
SHAPIRO: Now, you describe him as spending 20 years road bumming around the world. The title of the book is "The Last Great Road Bum." I actually had not heard that term before. What does it mean?
TOBAR: Well, it's a term from the sort of tail end of the beat generation. You know, it's the idea of hitchhiking with as little money as possible, trying to get as many free rides and free beds as you can. Kerouac did this, obviously, and on the road, Joe Sanderson was a little bit after Kerouac, and so he set off around the world to try to have as many adventures as cheaply as possible.
SHAPIRO: He makes some choices in his travels through the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Central America - choices that I do not understand. He goes into the middle of the Vietnam War just to see what it's like. He signs on with the Red Cross in Nigeria apparently not out of a desire to have a positive impact but to kind of confront starvation and misery firsthand. Why did he do these things?
TOBAR: You know, Joe was from a really traditional Midwestern family. Both his parents were college educated. His mom was an accountant at the University of Illinois. His dad was, you know, the world's leading expert on the June beetle at the University of Illinois. And so Joe I think above all wanted to impress his parents, and the one way he could think to do that was to write a novel. He loved reading. He loved Hemingway especially. And, you know, his concept of what a novel is is something that was very male-centered, very adventure-centered. Joe loved the action. That's what he was searching for. He found it in a Rastafarian camp. He even went to the demilitarized zone of Korea just after the Korean War. And he justified the dangers involved by telling himself and telling his family, well, I'm writing a book. It's all going to be a book. It's all going to be the great American novel.
SHAPIRO: I hear you speaking about Joe Sanderson with a degree of sympathy and affection. And reading the book, he doesn't always come across as a sympathetic character. I mean, in fact, one of the devices in the novel is that you have Joe Sanderson's voice in footnotes commenting on the narrative. And at one point, he even says the whole sympathetic protagonist thing has gone out the window. Lucky me.
TOBAR: Right. Well, the world has changed a lot since Joe Sanderson was trying to write a novel. You know, Joe died in 1982. He left behind, you know, half a dozen manuscripts, none of which ever sold. And, you know, the world now has changed thanks to the women's movement, thanks to the movements of people of color, writers of color. And so, you know, me writing these footnotes where Joe lives in this sort of really strange sort of space in the afterlife commenting on how the world has changed and how the book about him is nothing like the book that he tried to write, right? In my book, the women speak back to Joe. You know, they - in my book, the people of color, they look at this white boy that's come to live among them, to fight among them, and they say, look, dude, you know, you don't really understand completely the way the world works.
SHAPIRO: Wherever he goes in his travels, you write that his blue eyes open doors, from Vietnam to El Salvador. And so for you as a Latino writer of Central American descent, who does not have the same degree of white privilege, how did it feel to write that aspect of the story?
TOBAR: You know, it was just really exciting. You know, I think that's what a novel is really supposed to do. It's supposed to allow us to act out our fantasies. So I was able to fantasize that I was Joe. I became Joe. I mean, that's what you do when you write a novel. You become your characters. And I became this self-confident, slightly clueless white man traveling around the world, you know, taking in these adventures. But then I felt even more powerful when I could become the Salvadoran guerrillas, you know, because a lot of this novel is about the Salvadoran revolution. In fact, that's the way I always thought of it. I thought of it as the novel that will break the Salvadoran revolution to the American public. To me, to recreate that, to live inside that revolution, it was just a wonderful experience as a writer.
SHAPIRO: After spending so much of his adult life as a road bum, as a bystander, as an outsider, he arrives in El Salvador and deeply engages, fighting on behalf of the rebels against the U.S.-backed government. What do you think it was about that conflict that made him commit in a way that he hadn't up until that point?
TOBAR: Well, you know, I think at the beginning, he thought of it as the Spain that Hemingway describes in "For Whom The Bell Tolls." He thought he was going to be that American rebel who's the protagonist of that novel - right? - who joins up with the Spanish Republicans, right? And instead, what he discovers is this popular uprising that involves so many different people in Salvadoran society, teenagers and peasants fighting a war using any method they can find against this government that is funded by the United States. And I just think being intimately inside of it made Joe feel fully realized as a human being. And it also taught him, you know, how much he didn't know. The Salvadoran rebels really taught him the way the world works.
SHAPIRO: So how do you think about what it means for you to do the hard work of completing this man's life goal by writing the book? I mean, is it a gift that you are giving him or a gift that he has given you or what?
TOBAR: I think it's a gift that we're both giving to the Salvadoran people, right? I often thought of this novel as me collaborating with a dead man. And Joe was my reporter. He was my eyes and ears in the revolution, compiling notes, you know, every little detail he could observe. We did this together. And it's just really been one of the most wonderful projects of my life to be collaborating with Joe Sanderson, a dead man.
SHAPIRO: He tried so many times to write the novel. How do you think he'd respond to this one?
TOBAR: I think Joe would be - above all, he would be really satisfied to see his story in print. You know, there's one passage where I actually allowed Joe just to go on and I quote almost verbatim from one of his notebooks. And I just - I let Joe speak word for word. And so after more than 40 years of waiting, in my novel Joe Sanderson is at last a published writer. He becomes a published writer after, you know, after his 20 years of failure. And I think he would be deeply satisfied with that.
SHAPIRO: Hector Tobar's new book is "The Last Great Road Bum."
Thank you for talking with us about it.
TOBAR: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.