The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, Steven Sherrill

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 312 (paperback)
Form: Novel

Rating:

Five thousand years on . . . and the Minotaur, or M as he is known to his colleagues, is working as a line chef at Grub’s Rib in North Carolina, keeping himself to himself, keeping his horns down, trying in vain to put his past behind him.

He leads an ordered lifestyle in a shabby trailer park where he tinkers with cars, writes and rewrites to-do lists and observes the haphazard goings-on around him. Outwardly controlled, M tries to hide his emotional turmoil as he is transported deeper into the human world of deceit, confusion and need.

And another book that makes me consider my rating system over here because, though I certainly liked this one, I don’t like it anywhere near as much as some other books I’ve already given four stars to. But I’ll keep the ratings system how it is for the moment and wait until the new year to implement any changes and rejigs to the blog – I liked it, hence four stars, but a low four stars (if that makes any sense!).

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is an odd little book. Not surprisingly, it was the title that first caught my attention when I spotted this nestled among the staff recommendations at Waterstone’s. I didn’t buy it straight away, but the title and the intriguing blurb niggled away at me for weeks until I finally did cave – and I can honestly say that I’m glad that I did. Although it wasn’t quite what I expected and it won’t become a favourite it was definitely an interesting and enjoyable book – though very much in the ‘not for everyone’ camp.

The basic premise is that the Minotaur (M)- and other mythological creatures – live everyday lives in modern America (and presumably the rest of the world). Instead of being the fierce man-eating virgin-devouring monster of legend, however, the millenia have ground the Minotaur down into a world-weary, socially-awkward creature trudging along with little agency of his own and quietly watching humanity from the sidelines, longing for something more. In fact it’s really more a book about loneliness and social isolation than it is about Greek mythology and is ultimately one of these books that’s actually more character physiology than plot. Instead of a defined beginning, middle, and end with an ultimate purpose and neat conclusion, the book simply follows a few weeks of the everyday life of M during one of the many cycles of settled boredom, something going wrong, and change that have characterised his whole existence. Will things ultimately get better? Will he ever escape this cycle? The book, for me, doesn’t really answer and I can’t personally hold out much hope for his life improving – but it’s an interesting examination of an immortal character trying to function in the modern world.

If you come in expecting a modern fantasy or adventure featuring the creatures from Greek mythology you might well be disappointed – little explanation is given to world-building and the action is mostly in the repetition and disruptions of everyday routine. M and his kind are just a part of the setting and people mostly just seem to  accept that and so don’t act too surprised when they run into a minotaur on their weekly shop or serving them dinner at their favourite restaurant. In many ways M represents the lowly, overlooked, service-person – or the guy with a disability that people don’t want to stare at so simply ignore – just as much if not more than he represents the monster from myth and legend. That he has a bull’s head and horns and has trouble forming words with his mouth is just one more thing to set him apart from the people around him and make fitting in that much harder. It’s a slow-paced, thoughtful, book concerned extensively with the Minotaur’s internal thoughts rather than cramming in events or plot and M is an interesting character, his reactions to humanity dulled by centuries, yet still dreaming of fitting in.

As I said, I liked it, but it might be an acquired taste. It’s written in the present tense for one – which is something I’ll freely admit to normally hating – and the sentences are mostly very short, simple and almost childlike ‘the Minotaur likes this’ ‘the Minotaur does that’. But it’s also weighed down by a lot of minute detail – what people are wearing, how to cook whatever the Minotaur is cooking etc. etc. I learnt a bit about the American food industry I guess (hushpuppies are a type of food as well as a brand of shoe!), but I did get pretty bored by a lot of the kitchen scenes and I found the secondary characters a bit too flat and two-dimensional. Mike and Shane are mean posturising young men, Kelly is nice and has epilepsy and the Minotaur fancies her, Cecie is a silly flirt, Sweeney seems rough but is really a kind hearted bloke. Everybody is exactly how they first appear and they never develop past that. It adds to the tone of ultimate inevitability in the book – it’s a bit like watching a tragedy where you can just see the ending  unraveling in front of you – but for me it just felt a bit unsatisfying. I’m still not quite sure why the Minotaur fancies Kelly at the start of the book he just does, which is fairly close to real life I guess but feels unsatisfactory in a book.

And I guess that’s the feeling I’m left with – and the feeling, I suspect, that I’m meant to be left with. I enjoyed it, and the book wouldn’t have been true to itself if it didn’t wrap up in the way it did, but ultimately I found it a little underwhelming and slightly unsatisfactory. Not a book I would recommend to someone whose tastes I don’t know very well, but one I liked well enough myself.

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