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The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break: A Novel - Steven Sherrill (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.