... a curious club sandwich of fact, fiction, speculation and ham, describing the wanderings and writings of a real person, Joe Sanderson, who is anything but a road bum. (Even if he were, he wouldn’t be the last, and his greatness is debatable.) But as a committed and self-conscious adventurer and romantic voyeur in search of the ragged and the rudimentary — a figure to whom I easily relate — he is absolutely of his time ... the author clearly knows the difference between fact and fiction, but the two forms are muddled here, and not helped by the intrusive footnotes ... Tobar — needlessly self-conscious about being a Hispanic author writing 'a novel about a man who isn’t' — 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 ... 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.
... jeweled with lyricism but freighted with history ... It is to the credit of the historical persona of Joe Sanderson that he did not remain oblivious to this one-way trade, but it isn’t immediately obvious why Tobar chose fictional form to capture his journey into greater involvement ... does not initially offer much in the way of significant novelistic pleasures—interiority, nuance, shifts in pacing. The new novel lacks the striving for self-awareness that Antonio, Elena, and Araceli display in the early fiction. There are extensive descriptions of places, but few scenes and little dialogue. Other characters—especially the women Joe is involved with—drift by as vignettes, although Tobar occasionally deploys free indirect discourse to jump into multiple points of view, offering brief glimpses of emotions and thoughts, or even intellectual complexity one suspects would not have come naturally to Sanderso ... The accelerating narrative is impeded only occasionally by the footnotes where Joe, speaking from the great beyond, offers his thoughts on Tobar’s fictionalization of his life. These footnotes aren’t always convincing as a device. They seem to replicate the goofy persona Joe affects in his letters home, which Tobar excerpts occasionally in the main narrative. Masculine, white, North American, always ready with a joke or a moniker that reduces the unknown world to familiar cultural markers—these are traits likely to come across as especially grating after close to a century of U.S. hegemony. But Joe’s voice sells himself short as much as it reduces others, because beneath the sunshine, there is complexity ... at the heart of his story is the conjoined failure of art and revolution that perhaps gives the book its greatest emotional charge as well as a basis for Tobar’s decision to pursue it as a novel rather than as nonfiction ... Culture is often just another weapon to go with military training in U.S. bases. Against such deception, Tobar’s flawed and human hero stands out with surprising clarity.
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 ... a very different kind of road narrative ... 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) ... 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 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.