And now for something completely different… from whatever you last read. Because how many novels are there that feature, as the protagonist, a minotaur? And set him down in small-town North Carolina, as a line cook in a steak restaurant? Where the other characters pretty much take him for granted, call him “M,” and understand that after about 5,000 years of existence he still doesn’t quite know how to manage his horns?
I owe The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break to reader Barbara. I do tend to get into an anglo-Euro rut, I know, and if there’s one over-arching theme to my reading it’s escapism, so this was a refreshing break. Also, I will admit, discomfiting. Steven Sherrill is a very good writer and he uses a wide range of tones here, beginning each chapter in blank verse, stepping away from the action to muse on the dilemmas of humanity – which I know sounds tedious but it isn’t. It’s thoughtful and wise. Provocative. Quirky. Probably funny, but I was so consumed with compassion for M that the humor if any passed me by. Remember Kermit’s lament, “It’s not easy being green?” Trying carrying a bull’s head on a human body.
So once you’ve created a minotaur/line cook, what do you do with him? Not, as it turns out, a whole lot. There is certainly enough plot to keep us going, as M stumbles into a couple of problematic situations and also opportunities. You care enough to want to know what happens to him. But none of it (sorry, cannot resist the pun) has mythic scope. Sherrill goes into a lot of detail about M’s life; his car, what he eats, his grooming routines which are very elaborate. For instance, the area of his body where he turns from bull into man is itchy and sensitive, and often painful, and requires a great deal of care. Hey! Think that’s a metaphor? And M has trouble expressing himself because his bull’s tongue just isn’t meant for speech. Time and again his motives and actions are misinterpreted and he has a terrible time connecting with people. M is very lonely.
Just getting through life, you know? Despite M’s presentation as an ordinary creature, I couldn’t help thinking of him as Man. More or less well-intentioned, learning sometimes from his mistakes, often at a loss as to how best to behave. The rest of the characters — his co-workers, his neighbors in the Lucky-U trailer camp — exhibit the same average-Joe mixture of qualities.
Still not getting a clear picture of this book? Here’s a little sample:
The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps… is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.
At home in bed the Minotaur doesn’t remember what he said to Kelly, if anything. She put her hand on top of his. He tosses and turns throughout the night, maybe sleeps, maybe not.