Series: THE MINOTAUR NOVELS
Plot Type: Magical Reality
Ratings: Violence—3; Sensuality—3; Humor—3
Publisher and Titles: John F. Blair
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2000)
The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time (2016)
I read the first MINOTAUR novel fifteen years ago before I started this book review blog. Now, Sherrill has written a sequel, picking up M's life a decade and a half later. In this post, after a brief introduction to the world-building, I present summaries and reviews of both novels: First, the publisher's blurb and links to two excellent professional reviews of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. Then, the publisher's blurb and my own review of The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time.
To immerse yourself in the world of the Minotaur (aka "M") requires a complete suspension of disbelief. First and foremost, you must accept that M, a half-bull/half-man mythological creature, lives in the modern-day world amongst humans who pretty much accept him as a man—an odd, eccentric man, but still, a man. In the first book, M works as a line cook and lives in a run-down trailer park in small-town North Carolina. In the second novel, M has moved to central Pennsylvania, where he works as a Civil War re-enactor.
Sherrill is a poet as well as a novelist, and he based the first MINOTAUR novel on one of his poems. Click HERE to read that poem.
NOVEL 1: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
The trailer is old and cramped, not designed for the likes of the Minotaur. He lies in the center of his bed vaguely remembering a time of more space. A time even before beds. But those memories are fleeting, nebulous. They fill him by turns with melancholy and a vague terror. Summer heat, undaunted by night, overpowers the oscillating fan on his chest of drawers. The air is so humid it’s almost visible; the topsail of the boat in the framed photograph seems to flutter. The sheets and the Minotaur’s pajama pants are damp from sweat. A baby-blue chenille bedspread lies bunched on the floor, kicked away during sleep. A dog barks outside his window.
“Buddy! Shut up!” Sweeny yells from somewhere inside his house. Buddy, a wheezing piebald English bulldog, does in fact stop barking. Without looking the Minotaur knows Buddy is pacing back and forth on the concrete floor of his narrow chain-link run. Without doubt he knows that Buddy will start barking again in a few minutes. The dog run is small. The low wooden shelf offers little shade from the sun. Buddy’s only distraction is half of a chewed basketball. The Minotaur understands completely Buddy’s need to bark. Click HERE to go to the novel's Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.
LINKS TO REVIEWS:
Although I read this book back in 2003, I was not writing blog reviews at that time, so I decided to forgo a re-read and, instead, provide links to the best reviews (in my humble opinion) that were written back when the novel was published: Click HERE to read Megan O'Grady's excellent review in the New York Times, entitled "Dreaming of Hoofbeats." Click HERE to read Colin Greenland's review in The Guardian, entitled "Animal Magnetism." Click HERE to read James Urquhart's review in The Independent.
Sixteen years have passed since Steven Sherrill first introduced “M,” the selfsame Minotaur from Greek mythology, transplanted to the modern American South, in The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. Since the book’s publication, it has been translated into eight languages.
In 2011, Neil Gaiman selected this work of contemporary Americana as one of five books for his initial line of audiobooks for Audible.com’s “Neil Gaiman Presents.” The novel also made The Wall Street Journal’s list of the “Five Best Novels Not About Humans” and The Telegraph’s list of the “10 Best Food and Drink Books of All Time.” This fall, Steven Sherrill is bringing M back for a sequel.
In The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time, the Minotaur has moved north, from a life of kitchens and trailer parks to that of Civil War re-enactors at a run-down living history village in the Rust Belt of central Pennsylvania. Though he dies now, in uniform, on a regular basis, his daily struggles remain unchanged. Isolation. Loneliness. Other-ness.
Cared for by the Guptas, the immigrant family that runs the motel where he lives, and tolerated by his coworkers at Old Scald Village, M wants only to find love and understanding. The serendipitous arrival of Holly and her damaged brother, waylaid on their own journey of loss, stirs hope in the Minotaur. As their paths overlap, readers will find themselves rooting for the old half-man, half-bull as he stumbles toward a real live human relationship.
In this second novel, Sherrill hits a bit harder at satirizing the poverty—of spirit, finances, and future prospects—of Rust Belt America, with central Pennsylvania representing the vacuous, lowbrow core of the country. Interspersed with realistic life scenes are sections of abstract expressionism—riffs on M's travels from his mythological birth to his current life as a Civil War re-enactor and motel handyman, but also some that involve M's growing feelings for Holly. I have to admit that I skimmed through these because they felt contrived and theatrical and because sometimes they made little sense.
As the story opens, M is dying—symbolically—as a faux Confederate soldier on the battlefield at Old Scald Village, just as he does every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. ("The Union always wins on Friday.") M has been working at the living history park for years, happy enough in his job that he hasn't had the urge to move on. One Sunday morning, though, M wakes up feeling uneasy: "Change is coming. Change. Change threatens to overtake the plodding old bull The Minotaur knows it. For better or worse is in the eye of the beholder."
Sure enough, when the day's battle is over and M comes back to life, he has yet another accident involving his unwieldy horns and his bulbous black snout. But this time the results are so calamitous that he is fired from his re-enactment job and ordered off the premises. After this catastrophe, M spends every day doing cleanup and repairs at the Judy-Lou Motel, run by an Indian family who, as reverers of cattle, respect M and provide him with as normal a life as a 21st century minotaur could possibly expect. Across the road lives Danny Tanneyhill, a horny, hard-drinking, braggadocios chainsaw sculptor who hauls in huge tree trunks and turns them into roadside "art."
Into this scene drives Holly and her brain-damaged brother, Tookus, in a broken-down van that seizes up and dies right in front of the motel. Tookus's injury has left him with symptoms that mimic a severe case of Tourette syndrome: unpredictable motor tics and incessant cursing. Holly, a gorgeous, flirtatious, poverty-stricken redhead, is on her way to put her hard-to-control brother into institutional care in Pittsburgh, a sad but necessary decision that is eating her up with guilt. Soon, a weird love triangle emerges with Holly, Danny, and M at its lusty angles and Tookus in the center, cursing up a continuous stream of profanity and flailing at his sister's breasts: "Boobies. Booooobieeeees."
As the story plays out to its inevitable, heavily foreshadowed conclusion, we watch M—world-weary but still looking for love—trying once again to make a connection with a human woman, but inevitably failing when his horns get in the way (both metaphorically and in reality).
For me, this book is less successful than the first, partly because of its slow pace, but also because of Sherrill's heavy-hitting preoccupation with aspects of life in central Pennsylvania, tucking in odd tidbits of local history and culture (e.g., mountain pies, the Slinky factory, abandoned limestone kilns) while frequently satirizing its citizens: the shrill, mindless tourists; the narrow-minded, reactionary locals; the hardcore re-enactors who are always "looking down their period-correct noses at the mere pretenders." (These desperate, disillusioned, angry folks were never going to vote for Hillary—no matter what the polls said!)
Even though I didn't enjoy this novel quite as much as the first, I love M as a character—a long-suffering ancient creature of myth forced to live out his life in the metaphorical maze of modern life. His conversational grunts—"Unngh" and "Mmmnn"—cloak a rich whirlpool of conflicting emotions, misguided hopes, and unreachable dreams, all fully articulated within M's mind but never reaching the ears of the humans with whom he interacts. Early in the book, Sherrill describes M's life: "A life as long as the Minotaur's—that half-man half-bull, and fully scapegoat—a life that long doubles back on itself from time to time. Caves in...The world shifts continuously beneath his feet." And it keeps on shifting and caving in all the way to the end.
Click HERE to read the review of this novel that appeared in the New York Times on October 10, 2016. Click HERE to go to the novel's Amazon.com page where you can click on the cover art to read an excerpt.