The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break
by Steven Sherrill
Published by John F. Blair
256 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Everyman in a Bull Suit
Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer
In Steven Sherrill's debut novel, The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break, M -- the Minotaur, of mythic fame, the creature you thought got killed by Theseus in the labyrinth -- has made a deal for freedom and immortality.
Theseus got the girl, for awhile, and M has been roaming the globe since. As the book opens, M, half man with the head of a bull, is a chef in North Carolina at a prime rib restaurant. He has been around for eons, though he is new in this town. He isn't going to die, he's got to make a living and he likes to cook. Sherrill writes it straight and we never doubt him.
M is the proverbial elephant standing in the living room -- or in this case the kitchen. He is the naked emperor; the unfortunate guy with the ghastly deformity. He is the person people try to talk around, down to, or ignore. Yet he cooks, he pays his rent and he fixes cars on the side. The Minotaur has given up being angry because he is keenly aware of its futility. He gets along. Whatever his past, he is now part of the great human herd trying to make a living and survive.
The book also has regular, everyday, hard working, lower-middle-class human characters. The author lets us see just how difficult it is to bring in a regular paycheck. How complex. Maybe more so if you are an unsung service employee. He uses the commercial kitchen, an orchestrated world of food preparation, to place M as a team player, who is good at what he does but different nonetheless. Let's say he is tolerated.
Home is little better. The Minotaur is resident at the Lucky-U trailer park, where he lives in an underfurnished trailer shaped like a boat. On a good day, before work, he does errands, mends his few clothes, works on his ancient car and tries to be a good neighbor. It isn't easy. The couple next door live their lives in web chairs out in front of their mobile home. The landlord strolls the deck behind his house, in his boxers, surveying his domain. Life is basic at the Lucky-U.
Most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can't stomach any of it.
Though a hybrid, M feels with the emotions of a man. He has drives. He has needs that have not been met often or well. Tragically, his muzzle does not allow him to put a human face on his longings, and that makes all the difference. He suffers in near silence, encased in an unbreakable bull's head shell, unable to escape, compelled to go on. You realize his bargain with Theseus was no bargain.
The world of this novel seems changeless. Life is as it always has been. Guys at work get fired, someone moves and asks the Minotaur to help him lift his stuff, a kitchen accident results in an injury, a dog dies. The boss invites M to dinner at his house. Little things in the story ring so achingly true we are moved to experience the Minotaur as an everyman, a Willy Loman, a Job. We wait in dread for his next humiliation. A voyeuristic suspense settles in.
We know something is coming. M feels it, and when it happens, finally, we search for hope. We desperately want M to be the kind of human we imagine he could be. He never is. Surprisingly, quizzically, he is the Minotaur, not an us, not an it. M does not defend himself. He neither rages, nor rants. He is not and never was particularly righteous, but he endures and we are sad for him.
The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break is wonderfully written. There is an atmosphere to the book that lingers with the reader, bothers you, later. There are funny scenes where the Minotaur makes faces at kids and tries to decipher a stupid dog trick. There is the pathetic as well. Imagine the Minotaur watching a televised bullfight, understanding both the bull and the matador, then going to work carving prime rib at your table, in an oversized pleated chef's hat.
The North Carolinians and the setting are wonderful choices for this novel. The author has lived in the state, though doesn't now. I wonder, since I live here, if others would believe these folks exist. There is a tolerance for the eccentric here, more so than other places, I suspect. Just today, I saw a woman on a busy street corner, dressed to the nines, in cream leather heels, pacing back and forth, preaching. She had an electric bull horn and a flowing white cape over her spring green suit. Lettered in red on the back were the words, "Freedom or Hell." No one paid her the least attention.
Indeed, a minotaur could live here. It could happen.
In The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break, Steven Sherrill gives us a new way to think about what it means to live with severe, visible, limitations. He looks unflinchingly at a moment in a life. He doesn't explain or offer solace. His minotaur has neither freedom nor hell. M's is a terrible limbo that stretches in time without end. No escape. A tragedy. | March 2000
Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.