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The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by…

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (original 2000; edition 2000)

by Steven Sherrill

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5352118,829 (3.58)25
Title:The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
Authors:Steven Sherrill
Info:John F Blair Pub (2000), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 313 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:2012 read

Work details

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel by Steven Sherrill (2000)

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(Edited to repair a glaring omission!)

(This turned out to be the longest review I've written and for a 4 star book!)

Let me state that td has written the penultimate review of this fine book and I won’t dare to compete with her depth of comprehension (her review was the whole reason I even purchased the book). So, I thought I’d take a slightly different tack in this and try to understand who and what the Minotaur is (he does have a name, by the way). However, let me preface my own meanderings here with a couple notes:

First, the “sex scene” is not really a sex scene. There are a handful of other “scenes” within the book that sensitive readers could somehow find arguably more offensive so don’t let the rumor of bestiality turn you away.

Second, Sherrill is NOT Gaiman (again, see td’s review).

Now, to begin, the Minotaur is not a metaphor. He is not symbolic of the human condition. He is not even an anthropomorphization. He is an actual flesh and blood immortal living in a trailer park in North Carolina. And it is barely out of the normal. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you will start enjoying the book. However, in his 5,000 years, he’s obviously begun a process of devolution in which the powerful qualities of the flesh-eating terror we all knew and loved have been worn down and diminished before the weak though relentlessly steady aspects of his humanity. Yes, I groan to say it because it sounds so corny but in most ways he has become just as (if not more) human than modern man. We are all the lesser when we lose our monsters:

“There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, 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…”

Yet, biology attests that his old ways are not so easy to ignore or forget:

“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 – the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life – 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.”

Perhaps a short biographical note and a cute picture of the Minotaur as a bouncing baby on mommy’s knee will help overcome any obstacles.

According to Apollodorus in his Library of Greek Mythology:

…Minos wished to reign over Crete, but his claim was opposed. So he alleged that he had received the kingdom from the gods, and in proof of it he said that whatever he prayed for would be done. And in sacrificing to Poseidon he prayed that a bull might appear from the depths, promising to sacrifice it when it appeared. Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another. Being the first to obtain the dominion of the sea, he extended his rule over almost all the islands.

But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daedalus, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze. Then he introduced Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth. Now the Labyrinth which Daedalus constructed was a chamber “that with its tangled windings perplexed the outward way…”

If you are a member of Goodreads (and it appears you are), you are probably fairly well read and already know what happens after that. However, it’s obvious that the original mythology is slightly incorrect because the Minotaur is still alive lo these many years later, despite rumor of having been slain by Theseus. [Edited] Sherrill, unfortunately, never gets around to explaining what the real story was except that the Minotaur is simply immortal Sherrill does explain how the Minotaur was spared from Theseus' club in a bit of poetry in the Prologue though his immortality remains unexplained (like the several other Greek contemporaries of his that make cameo appearances such as Medusa and Hermaphroditus; Sherrill does neglect to explain how the American South came to be the coincidental gathering spot of these characters but it doesn’t detract from the story of our hero). So being immortal, he doesn’t fear death, but he is still afraid:

“…not of death, obviously, but of something else. Ridicule. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Misunderstanding. Injustice. His own potential for tiny rages. Maybe that most of all. All these things can seem, in the moment, worse than dying, particularly if death isn’t an option.”

And exactly like the Labyrinth in which the Minotaur was first placed, Sherrill leads the story through a wandering path where excitement is rare but it is genuine and sudden and takes the reader to an unavoidable destination. Throughout the tale, despite his thousands of years of experience, the Minotaur is constantly puzzled by human behavior; by man’s ability to avoid the important questions, by his ability to treat others with such impervious cruelty, and yet still have the ability to treat things not human with so much emotion, something that he finds “...baffling, enviable, and tinged with hope.”

The book is not slow or grinding in the least. The work runs at its own pace for a very good reason: It is beautifully written. It is a true credit to Sherrill that he can create such excellent dialogue from a creature who’s curling lips, bovine teeth, and thick tongue limit most of his linguistics to glottal Unnng’s and Ummhm’s.

Something that gave me a nice surprise chuckle was the Minotaur’s enrollment in the Sacred Heart Auto Club. Yes, it’s a real organization (actually called the Sacred Heart Auto League) and it’s still around today. As someone interested in all things Catholic, I’d already known about it but I can’t say I’ve ever known anyone else that did. What good southern novel doesn’t contain at least one Catholic element in it even if it’s for comic relief?

Perhaps I’m being picky, but the single flaw I find in Sherrill’s work here is what prevents me from giving the book the full five stars I want to give it: his departure from the literary form from which he drew his title character, and it shows especially in the final paragraph of the book:

“There are few things that he knows, these among them: that it is inevitable, even necessary, for a creature half man and half bull to walk the face of the earth; that in the numbing span of eternity even the most monstrous among us needs love; that the minutiae of life sometimes defer to folly; that even in the most tedious unending life there comes, occasionally, hope. One simply has to wait and be ready.”

To me, Sherrill has made of the Minotaur a fable. A tale with a moral. There’s nothing wrong with that, and some reviewers (including td) really latch onto it. However, the tale of the Minotaur stems from mythology, a world in which the inhabitants are in no way in control of their own fate but instead at the will of capricious and whimsical gods and goddesses. I’d have rather not had an explanation given to me. To have that at the end of an otherwise fantastic story was a minor disappointment.

Since I intend to stay true to my vow of not giving out 5 star reviews willy-nilly anymore, 4.4999… stars.
( )
  cjyurkanin | May 22, 2013 |
A friend of mine loaned this to me, saying it was one of his all-time favourite books. We have simialr tastes in many things, so I opened this with some anticipation.

And I'm a sucker for a great idea. Any novel that comes up with the idea of sticking the mythical monster of the Cretan labyrinth in the American Deep South, armed only with a sauté pan, and no Theseus in sight, is worthy of anyone's attention. For this, Steven Sherrill's "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break" gets my respect (even though a similar theme was explored before in Douglas Adams' "The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul".)

However, there are a few stumbling blocks that made this a challenging read for me. First, there’s the issue of suspending disbelief that the Minotaur, several thousand years away from a more glorious life in Crete, has found himself living in an a trashy little trailer park hardly able to make ends meet with the salary he draws as a cook. Then there’s the fact that no-one seems at all surprised by the fact that a bloke with a bulls head and horns is living amongst them and cooking dinner. Then there’s his really annoying limited vocabulary, which means that he pretty much only ever says "Unnh".

The Minotaur is an outsider, because of his history, his looks and also his limited ability to communicate ("Unnh"). He lives a simple day to day life. We learn in the first 10 pages that he is introspective, detached, emotionally vacant and basically lonely. Over the next 300 pages, this point is made again and again – and nothing much else happens.

The Minotaur runs into a couple of mythological characters throughout the story, but like so much else in the book, their interactions don't go anywhere. This was one of the biggest disappointments. There is so much to pursue here - the relationships between mythological creatures, those with that common, ancient bond, forced to live in our modern society- and yet the author skips right over it. He also skips over why these creatures can't use their powers to get better jobs (Medusa as a $1 side-show attraction), why they are not famous (even though they appear in encyclopaedias), or even how the Minotaur survived his death at Theseus' hands. Then there’s the whole missed opportunity to explore a range of issues about immortality.

At its conclusion, I was left only with a minor tale that has consumed my time and wasted its own wonderful premise.

I wanted to love "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break" but, for me, there simply is not enough here to give it a pass mark. ( )
  Jawin | Jan 2, 2013 |
Let me say this is not a fantasy novel. It is a deeply moving look into humanity. The minotaur is the outsider looking in. He's definitely an antihero as he balances the line between hero and victim or a bumbling, shame-filled, muffled former psychopath reeling version of Forrest Gump. The tale takes place in a matter of days wrapped up in humdrum everydayness, bizarre hilarity, and a little what the... for good measure. ( )
  revslick | Dec 17, 2012 |
I picked this up for $2 on a sale table at Chapters but for the life of me, I don’t know why. Yes, it’s that Minotaur—the head of a bull on the body of a man—now living and working in small town America as a chef. I’ll give the author a couple of points for imagining the day to day difficulties of fitting into modern society, but I couldn’t discern a plot to the book. Others might feel differently – this book ranks surprisingly high on Amazon’s charts.
Read this if: you’re a real fan of Greek mythology and love new takes on old themes. 2 stars ( )
  ParadisePorch | Nov 2, 2012 |
Had a sense of unease through long portions of this book. Felt for large amounts that something bad was going to occur. Mainly seemed to me to be about the mian characters lonliness and isolation, this was certainly easy to relate to in some of the situations in which he found himself.

Probably wouldn't read it again but would recommend it to people. Might well check out the author again. ( )
  fothpaul | Nov 12, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
Wise and ingenious as this novel is, its likability lies above all in its no-nonsense modesty, its distrust of showy gestures, the trudging optimism with which it evokes even the darker corners of humanity. We may think we have long given up our classical monsters for those made of flesh and blood, but the Minotaur gently reminds us that they very necessarily walk among us.
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The minotaur sits on an empty pickle bucket blowing smoke through bullish nostrils.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312308922, Paperback)

Five thousand years out of the Labyrinth, the Minotaur finds himself in the American South, living in a trailer park and working as a line cook at a steakhouse. No longer a devourer of human flesh, the Minotaur is a socially inept, lonely creature with very human needs. But over a two-week period, as his life dissolves into chaos, this broken and alienated immortal awakens to the possibility for happiness and to the capacity for love.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:24 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Five thousand years out of the Labyrinth that held him captive, and as many years beyond the dubious bargain that set him free, the Minotaur finds himself struggling to negotiate the American South with the body of a man and the head of a bull." "The Minotaur tries to balance the past, the present, and a looming future from behind the cooks' line at Grub's Rib, where his coworkers know both his skill with a chef's knife and the sometimes dangerous nature of his horns. At Lucky-U Mobile Estates, the Minotaur lives in a boat-shaped trailer and shares with his neighbors an appreciation for a quiet lifestyle and a respect for auto repairs.". "Over the duration of his life, the Minotaur has roamed the world and seen much, yet he has reaped little wisdom to help him navigate the complex geography of human relationships. Inarticulate, socially inept, tolerated at best by modern folk, he has been reduced from a monster with an appetite for human flesh to a broken creature with very human needs." "During the two weeks covered by the novel, the delicate balance tips, and the Minotaur finds his life dissolving into chaos while he simultaneously awakens to the possibility of love."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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