Book: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
Author: Steven Sherrill
Why Did I Read This Book: I frequently ask friends on other Internet haunts of mine to recommend books to me. This book was recommended by the resplendent Miss Erin James, with much enthusiasm on her part. Since she has good taste, I bought a copy that same day. I initially thought it would be a good book for I Read Odd Books, but it turned out not to be so odd after all, instead quirky and contemplative.
Availability: Published in 2000 by Picador, it is still in print and you can get a copy here:
Comments:This novel, despite having the decidedly unsubtle Minotaur as its main character, is a novel of subtleties. It is a novel in which not a whole lot happens until the very end, but the small sections where the Minotaur is active – helping co-workers move, repairing his car, mending his clothes, performing chores at work, rubbing lotion all over the place where his bull upper body meet his human lower body – are the meat of the book. At times it seemed too slow, but for it to have sped up would not have worked at all, for the Minotaur plods through his life, seldom in a rush. The Minotaur, knowing that he will likely be alive many more centuries, does not need to rush about. The tedium of life, the sheer crushing weight of all the time he has been alive, has not made him nihilistic, but it has enveloped him in a sort of torpor from which only the hope of love can remove him.
The Minotaur in Sherrill’s book is indeed the figure from Greek legend, the half-bull, half-man that King Minos trapped in the labyrinth, bastard, half-breed child from his wife, Pasiphaë, the result of one of those many pranks and punishments the Pantheon meted out when their wills were crossed. But in Sherrill’s book, Theseus does not kill the Minotaur and the Minotaur emerges from the maze, forced to make his way in the real world. This book places him in North Carolina, living in a trailer in a rundown trailer court, driving a Vega that he has to repair daily, and working in the kitchen in a family-style restaurant. If you read this book expecting a magically realistic tour de force, you will be disappointed. If you read this book as a borderline Southern Gothic novel of manners, wherein social roles and customs are discussed in great detail, and you like that sort of book, then this will be right up your alley. Sherrill treats with respect the extreme lower-middle class, never making a mockery out of people who in other hands would become a loathsome Larry the Cable Guy routine.
For me, this novel operates on two levels. The first is how mundane the world is, which is a complete “Duh!” statement, I am aware. But when the world is so devoid of magic and mythos that the Minotaur is driving a Vega and working as a cook, and instead of inspiring fear he creates rather a sort of almost racial discomfort in those around him, the world is not a particularly interesting place. This is not to say the book is not interesting, but rather the world the book creates, a fine distinction but one I hope holds some clarity. The other idea the book conveyed to me heavily is that the Minotaur is used as an Other Everyman. So many novels deal with the travails of normal people in this world, but seldom those among us who are genuinely different. Freaks. Genuine outsiders. The Minotaur’s presence in this book is to show that the world really will grind down the extraordinary. While the Minotaur really does experience a mild deus ex machina at the end of the book, the Minotaur is not restored to his old glory as a menace that inspires fear. Rather, the triumph he carves for himself at the end of the book is little more than the potential love of a plump, hairy woman and a chance to work a grueling job as his own boss. The Minotaur may win, but even as we sense he may have a chance at a better time of it, we never lose fact that if he becomes his own man, so to speak, he will be a prince in a kingdom of Southern Culture on the Skids. His glory days are over. This world really is the best he can hope for.
I think the most interesting part of this book for me, aside from wondering how many years Sherrill himself must have toiled in kitchens in order to write the scenes in the restaurant, is thinking about how human the Minotaur is in how he reacts yet how it is that basic understanding of human behavior eludes him. For example, in a scene in the restaurant as he is waiting for his paycheck, the Minotaur tries to enter into conversation with some trite frat-types, using sexual vulgarity as a means to become one of the boys (in so much as he can speak – the Minotaur’s speech in this book consists of grunts and murmurs). It backfires, as we all know it will. And I wonder how it is that after centuries of living among men, the Minotaur both does not understand how the world of men works and why it is he longs to be a part of it. Of course, I suspect the answer is that as half-man, half-bull, he can understand humans only so much but he never stops longing to be a part of them. The scene where he sleeps over at his bosses’ home, an aging homosexual with an allegedly lurid past and a penchant for historical reenactments, is touching. It makes you think the Minotaur can eventually get this right, that he can eventually find a place among human beings where he can feel accepted.
But then in a scene I will not go into in too much detail lest I spoil the novel, the girl the Minotaur wants goes into a seizure during lovemaking, and his reaction to the situation is utterly baffling. There is no part of the human in the Minotaur that goes into his decision, yet the bull in him clearly is not in charge, either. Perhaps this action in comparison to the Minotaur’s emotional lethargy is what makes it hard to explain. At times, I could not determine what it was that Sherrill wanted me to know about the Minotaur or the world in which he lives.
I think that is why I found most satisfying the scenes in which much detail is given to the Minotaur’s routine. How he eats onions like apples. His grooming routines, which involve coating his long horns with clear nail polish. How he tinkers with his car. How he sleeps without the A/C and listens to his neighbors and sometimes watches them, a hopeful and hopeless voyeur.
All in all, this novel occupies an uneasy place in my mind, which may have been Sherrill’s goal. He created a being whose reactions I sort of understand and sort of don’t. He set the novel in a place in this world with which I am wholly familiar, a place I both love and loathe. I think people should read this book if only to tell me what the hell they think about it. Ultimately, I don’t know. I liked and disliked the book but it resonated enough with me that I am going to put it on my shelves and come back to it one day to see what I think then. It was a finely written book whose purpose may have been wasted on me but may become clear in a second read.