The first time Héctor Tobar and I ate together, we discussed Joe Sanderson. This was in 2009, after Tobar returned to California from Mexico City, where he’d been The Times’ bureau chief. Later, he and I would spend two years working together on the paper’s book section.

Tobar’s fifth book, “The Last Great Road Bum,” circles back to that initial conversation; it’s a novel about Sanderson, an American from Illinois who in the 1980s fought alongside the rebels in the Salvadoran civil war. Sanderson was a prolific writer, if not a particularly skilled one, and his manuscripts and correspondence sit at the center of Tobar’s account. At the same time, the decision to frame his story as a work of fiction creates a set of exhilarating tensions, especially in a series of footnotes written from Sanderson’s perspective. (Spoiler: He’s got some issues with the book.)

The Times caught up with Tobar via Zoom on a sweltering August morning. He was in Winslow, Ariz., the first stop on a cross-country road trip to bring his college-age son back East for school.

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