June 2003

Joseph J. Finn

fiction

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

"The Minotaur sits on an empty pickle bucket blowing smoke through bullish nostrils." Now isn't that a sentence that makes you want to read on, to find out why a Minotaur, the Minotaur, is sitting on a pickle bucket, taking a cigarette break from his job cooking for a family-style restaurant in Florida? How did one of the most fearsome creatures in mythology, ruler of Daedalus' labyrinth, end up in this state?

Well, we don't find out, thankfully, because that's not the point of this oddly charming novel. Steven Sherrill is much more concerned with more pressing issues, like the Minotaur's constant wandering instinct, and his inability to connect with other people, partially due to his having the head of a bull. As the novel opens, the Minotaur has been working at Grub's Rib for some months, and he's as comfortable as you might expect a bull-headed cook to be. He's surrounded by the usual cast of characters you would find at a place like this; kitchen staff, the maitre'd, wait staff, etc. They're a nicely drawn bunch of people - no over-the-top eccentric characters for this book, just normal people working in a decent job (one of the nicely realistic bits is the invisible wall between the wait staff and the kitchen workers).

The Minotaur lives out on the edge of town, in a trailer park with various other people on the edge of society. He does the occasional odd job for the park owner to help pay the rent, but he's not exactly a friend with anyone at the park. In fact, the Minotaur doesn't really have any friends. He's stumbled into the horrible place of all acquaintances, no friends.

Sherrill creates a wonderful feeling of loneliness and dull pain for the Minotaur, that is made all the more painful when there is the occasional moment of friendship or joy. At one point, the Minotaur goes out with some ner-do-well coworkers, an excursion that turns into one of the worst examples of annoying frat-boy debauchery, Yet, there's still a feeling of sympathy for the Minotaur, who stumbles from moment to moment with no clear plan.

And that's the joy of this book - Sherrill shows what like is like for the disconnected, a pain made all the more bitter by the extra layer of the Minotaur's grotesqueness. It's a wonderful literary device, which at first seems far too much of a trick to succeed. But Sherrill's a fine writer, who turns this novelist's trick into a grand metaphor for the human condition.

"The Minotaur accepts this temporary blessing for all it is worth. 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; the minutiae of life sometimes defer to folly; that even in the most tedious unending life there comes, occasionally, hope."

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill
Picador USA
ISBN 0312308922
320 Pages

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