On a scale of pussiness from one to ten, one being the most pussy and ten being the least, I conservatively rank myself a five. It might be lower and it might be higher. I like to think I’m a badass in ways I don’t always get credit for, but I haven’t been in a mano a mano fistfight since 1990, so I also feel like a big part of the empirical evidence is missing.
On the same scale, I would rank The Making of Toro author Mark Sundeen somewhat lower than me (meaning less of a pussy). I don’t know what his fight stats are, but he guides river trips for a living and so makes more choices with possibly life-threatening consequences from day to day than I do. On unfamiliar turf, however—like the bullfighting and cockfighting arenas of Mexico—he’s a quick sorter-outer of acceptable risks in the name of literature and generally errs on the side of caution by scampering off whenever there’s a potential threat to life, limb and/or wallet involved.
Luckily, for the sake of literature, Travis LaFrance has got his back. LaFrance is Sundeen’s alter ego—renowned ladies’ man, fearless adventurer and author of a (fictional) book called Fun With Falconry. To LaFrance devolve all the duties of an adventure writer that Sundeen admits to not being particularly good at: seducing exotic foreign women, sharing squalor with the mythical Common Man himself, and looking danger straight in the eye and laughing. Sundeen molds himself after Turgenev and LaFrance after Hemingway, roving around Mexico collecting raw material in the form of female acquaintances and potentially adventurous situations and leaving LaFrance to spin them into ripping yarns. Hence The Making of Toro, a companion work to LaFrance’s answer to Death in the Afternoon, a lusty (and, again, fictional) memoir called, minus the lengthy subtitle, Toro.
The subterfuge is transparent but humorously elaborate—LaFrance’s imaginary books are listed right under Sundeen’s, opposite The Making of Toro’s title page. The cheeky subtitle (Bullfights, broken hearts, and one author’s quest for the acclaim he deserves) is an early indicator of the metafictional layers that will be laid bare in cutaway by the author himself, as are Sundeen’s negotiations with an agent to write a book about bullfighting beginning on page four. Sundeen might be the most irresponsible adventure writer ever, contracting to write a book about an Ur-Spanish tradition like bullfighting and blowing his entire advance before he even gets out of Mexico. You’ve got to love that.
But at least he’s honest about it to the reader, if not to his agent and publisher. As the latters’ worried e-mails start harshing his south-of-the-border Lost Generation mellow, Sundeen shines them on with inspired justifications for cutting Spain out of the picture entirely, writing them telegram-style, which is exactly how he imagined such communications would be carried out when he went into literary exile in the first place.
When his Mexican adventures turn out to be less extraordinary than what Sundeen had hoped for, it’s up to Travis LaFrance to turn the garbage into gold. Scouring a Mexican beach for just the right female expat for LaFrance to seduce, Sundeen sees only tubby Americans slathered in sun oil and waddling from snack stand to snack stand wondering whether to buy hot dogs wrapped in bacon. When he finally spies a suitably exotic specimen, she turns out to be an adult film star named Kumelia laying low with her porn-star companion, Jack Shaft, while they hatch a scam to raise enough money to go back to the States. The affable Sundeen impulsively volunteers to rent a car and take them all on a road trip, then ditches the penniless and increasingly desperate twosome at a taqueria. Though it’s looking like he might actually be able to sleep with Kumelia, the feeling that he’s going to be the one who gets burned so she and Jack Shaft can get home simply won’t go away. Sneaking out for ten minutes on false pretenses, Sundeen hails a cab and makes his escape.
“I didn’t have what it took to be an expatriate like Travis LaFrance,” he admits. “I sank low in the backseat in case Jack Shaft and Kumelia were in the streets looking for me. And I sank even lower in case the eyes of literature were on me, witnessing the supposed adventure writer sneak away from his fellows hidden in a taxi.”
Oddly enough, it’s the real Sundeen who inadvertently acts out the most biographically accurate Hemingway moment when he rolls his truck on a lonesome stretch of country road. The incident recalls Hemingway limping out of the jungle after surviving back-to-back plane crashes in Africa in 1954, swilling rotgut and laughing at the premature obituaries.
But elsewhere, it’s Sundeen who has to own up to failing at what he set out to do. Shortly before slinking back to his parents’ house (eventually taking them to Tijuana for the last of the book’s few actual bullfights), it comes to him as he’s staring at the ceiling of his hotel room:
“I see that all I’ve ever wanted was to make my life a good story,” Sundeen writes, “to be the star of my own book, but now it’s clear that mine has no plot, no arc, is just a series of anecdotes and a string of scenes sitting in stands watching the performers perform, not a hero but a spectator, and the only good parts are the parts that I make up.”
Which is exactly what I like about Sundeen’s writing. He usually doesn’t make parts up, or if he does, he usually tells you so, even if he doesn’t specify exactly which parts. Here he does, only he’s got Travis LaFrance to live those made-up parts for him.