Héctor Tobar’s Cheeky Road Novel: ‘The Last Great Road Bum’

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.

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