Book Review: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, by Steven Sherrill
Posted on April 17, 2013
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Here’s my advice and the three-word version of my review: read this book.
There are some excellent reviews already on Goodreads about The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, and I don’t have an especially brilliant addition to those. What I would say, though, is that the book is worth reading because the writing is sublime. It’s at turns funny and tragic. It engages our empathy in a way that reminds us — however uncomfortably — that we, too, are instinct-driven animals lurking beneath the more refined parts of our neocortex; that we are somewhat freakish and terribly vulnerable; and that, frequently, we are wholly or partially inadequate in managing our lives and loves. It’s also viscerally disturbing in parts, as many reviewers have pointed out.
Side note on the visceral disturbances: There is a total of one sort-of-sex scene in this book. Crossing as it does the beast-human line, it could easily cause some readers to toss the book aside as grotesque and repellent. To be sure, the way the scene ends is distressing, but not for the reasons one might think — and I won’t explain that here because it’s the anti-climactic climax of the book. But the achingly tender good will with which the girl and the Minotaur approach each other, sadly fumbling towards love, was beautiful to me (and I assume to many others).
The reason I mention this is because sex scenes — and even sort-of-sex scenes — are notoriously difficult to write, even for very good writers, and it requires a great deal of generosity on the part of readers not to say, “Well, that was stupid-awful-unrealistic-boring…” It speaks highly of Sherrill’s sensibilities and skills as a writer that he handles even this delicate and difficult material with a deft touch. The semi-sex is messy, awkward, and unnatural; but the writing is none of those things.
Sherrill is an eloquent, reflective, and subtle writer who pays close attention to detail, and to whom the words chosen matter a great deal. He is trying to do more than just entertain us. He shows us a microcosm revealing some of the more harrowing, cruel, and disgusting aspects of humanity, while simultaneously (and there’s the hard bit) showing us that there is still the possibility of redemption — or at least momentary reprieve — through acts of kindness, compassion, and love. Readers may feel a whole slew of conflicting emotions both during and after reading Minotaur, and may come away from it thinking, “What did I just read?! Am I okay with that? Should I be okay with that? Does it matter either way?”
Sherrill’s romantic anti-hero, the Minotaur, is as clumsy in his expressions of love as he is in other aspects of life. In such passages as I’ve mentioned above, Sherrill’s prose sings with an emotional and sexual authenticity that I found riveting. One needn’t use a lot of words to achieve this kind of gutsy realness, but they have to be the right words at the right time. The words matter.
Part of the reason Sherrill can depict the agony and ecstasy of romance, love, and lust so well is that his Minotaur is not presented solely as an archetype. The Minotaur is an archetype, yes, but he is also a person and a complicated one at that. We believe in the Minotaur and want him to come out okay in the end, even as we struggle with some of the choices he makes — or fails to make — due to his crippling inability to cope with human situations in a fully human way. (Of course, many humans share this inadequacy, too, which is one of Sherrill’s points.)
Sherrill has tethered the Minotaur myth to a post of gritty reality to hold taut our suspension of disbelief. The book is replete with details of daily lives lived at the grubby end of the socio-economic spectrum: poorly paid but all-that’s-available work; grinding poverty; exhausting heat and squalor; the repetitive and tedious chores required to maintain one’s physical existence and bodily integrity; the force of will it takes to keep up decent relationships with neighbours, whose own lives seem as flimsy as the worn out trailers they live in. Still, it’s community. And there’s hope in that.
Some reviewers have described the book as slow, as plodding, or as dull; but I did not find it so. It is essential to the book that we feel the day-to-day reality of the Minotaur’s life. As Sherrill explains it, an old professor of his once taught him that “the more outlandish the premise is, the more grounded the other elements must be.”
I had not heard of Steven Sherrill or this book until I read some reviews on Goodreads, but as I read his biography at the end of the book, I was not surprised to learn that he is a poet. I had wondered, as I read The Minotaur, whether the poems in the book were his own. Turns out, they are. They are worth the price of the book on their own. But read the whole book, because of the words the words the words. How they are arranged on the pages.
If you click below on the words Read more, you can enjoy the original poem by Sherrill that inspired his book. Also, there is an Audible version of the book, read by Holter Graham and part of the Neil Gaiman Presents series of audiobooks, that might be worth hearing. I haven’t heard it myself, so I cannot say what it’s like.
The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break
Sorely needed because, for the umpteenth
time since landing a job as line-cook
at the Holiday Inn, those damn horns of his
have been a problem. It’s the pots
that hang overhead; he keeps punching
holes in them, Management is pissed.
The Minotaur sits on an empty pickle bucket
blowing smoke through bullish nostrils.
He lows. He laments. He can’t remember
whether the Stuffed Flounder gets béchamel
or hollandaise. Moreover, the heat chafes.
About that time he spies her coming
down the ally, that new waitress the whole
kitchen is talking about. He almost gives her
the once-over but can’t get past her breasts.
The Minotaur is a tit man. — I’m a tit man–
he mouths to the Fry Cook. — What’s that mean;
You’re a tit man? — they ask. The Minotaur
can’t answer. He sits indignant, a convicted
it man, picking at the dried gravy
stain on his apron. Feigning indifference
he nearly misses the miracle beneathing her,
this apparition in slinky black.
But as she hoofs her way up the back
steps he can’t help but notice those fine shanks.
And what offers them up is not the sensible pump,
is not the stiletto heel, is nothing less
than cloven. “Things are looking up,” he thinks.