He insists that much of the archive is indeed straw; Joe’s fiction, all of it unpublished, is deemed “largely unreadable.” But bad writing is often more revealing of the writer than the slickest or most seamless work. Sanderson left four or five novels’ worth, plus a great stack of letters home, mostly to his mother, and numerous notebooks and journals. Tobar’s raw material also included the letters and eyewitness accounts of family members, girlfriends, journalists, traveling companions and, from the dirty war in El Salvador, fellow rebels. Sanderson’s war diaries, based on a matter of months in El Salvador, run to over 200,000 words.
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.
Sanderson arrived in El Salvador at a crucial time, amid a terrible civil war, and was impressed with the resolve of guerrilla fighters against an unjust regime. This period — which saw the mass killing of civilians, the rape of nuns, the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero — has been ably documented by some of the very journalists Sanderson met, introducing himself with his nom de guerre, Lucas. In Tobar’s telling, Raymond Bonner from The New York Times talks to him, the war photographer Susan Meiselas takes his picture (the gringo guerrillero slung in a hammock, war weary, carbine on lap, eyes averted) and The Washington Post’s Alma Guillermoprieto is also on the scene. They have no idea who this misplaced gringo might be. Bonner asks, “So why are you here?” Lucas answers, “I’m writing a book,” and later clarifies, “Sorta like John Reed in the Russian Revolution.”
At this point — he has less than a year to live — the war has become an infernal nightmare, and when Sanderson and his rebel compañeros stumble into the village of El Mozote, they find the entire community of around a thousand souls murdered by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion. The episode has been described as the worst massacre of the Salvadoran war, and one of the most savage in Latin American history. After years of wandering more or less aimlessly, Sanderson finds direction in the carnage; he becomes so committed that he pursues and kills at least two government soldiers.
Around this time, in a poignant moment, he confides to a fellow rebel that he’d like to go home and be a propagandist (and stay alive in Indiana). But he is in rural northeastern El Salvador, struggling from village to village, and before he can escape north through Honduras his patrol comes under heavy fire. He is fatally wounded and hastily buried on a mud bank, his name misspelled as “Anderson” when the news gets out.
In the course of the book Sanderson grows into manhood and tests his convictions, apparently resisting the truth that while bivouacking and hitchhiking may yield ideas, they are not ideal conditions for the writing of novels. I know this to be true, since Joe is my exact contemporary and so many of his itineraries were my own. I was teaching in East Africa when he was climbing Mount Kili; I was traipsing through El Salvador (for a book) the year before he joined the revolution. Two of my best friends were killed in Biafra. I laughed in recognition when Joe got stuck in a miserable spot near Herat in far western Afghanistan: I too had languished in the tiny, squalid, xenophobic outpost of Islam Qala (also known as Kafir Qala).
Sanderson did not succeed in his ambition to write the Great American Novel — or even a good one. But he martyred himself in that effort. He lived, loved, traveled widely, was foolhardy, became resolute and ceased to be a road bum when he committed himself to a cause. The book 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.