The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break
This is an odd hybrid. I think I would have enjoyed it more as a short story – just briefly playing with the novel idea of dropping a mythical character into an everyday setting. Well, not that novel – we’ve being seeing the human side of our superheroes/gods for a while now, even become a bit of a TV staple. Sherrill’s spin on this is deft, nuanced, anything but garish. But in suspending disbelief to allow people to treat a bull’s head in the same way they might a striking birthmark or any obvious deformity, at some point I thought this might as well be a novel about someone with …. an obvious deformity. I wonder if the mythical/magical aspect is ultimately just a(n effective) sales gimmick that attracts the attention of folks like Neil Gaiman and his legion of fans, rather than a fully explored extra dimension.
Putting that aside for the moment, if the immortal minotaur was instead, say, an eight foot tall human, this would still be a good novel – perhaps even a better one. The book is essentially a character sketch, and ‘M’ is wonderfully painted. We’re taken right inside what he notices, fears, values – what makes him who he is. We feel for him as he deals with reactions to his difference – sympathetic, cruel, accommodating, curious – but he’s not merely pitiable, and has his own accomplishments and strengths. Perhaps Sherill overuses the technique of detailing precise mechanical procedures (shades of Larsson's Salander’s obsessiveness), but it does convey his individuality and aptitude. Lots of touches invite the reader to empathise with ‘M’, ironically even in experiences that are probably quite dissimilar to their own, because Sherrill manages to integrate you with his almost childlike self-protective responses and cautious bids for relationship.
The world is almost definitive cinematic white trash small town US (I’m thinking Paris, Texas). No Manhattan lawyers here, but dirt poor blue collar/service industry folks, with the scenes pretty much limited to a trailer park, a steakhouse kitchen, an auto-wrecking yard, and a couple of apartments. The feel very much reminded me of ‘Of Mice and Men’, not only in terms of the bleak, impoverished American setting, but in the capably chiselled out personalities, the centralising of an innocent forced into unwanted attention by his abnormality, and particularly by the overwhelming sense of fragility, of insecurity: hopes are raised, but only hesitatingly, and with a strong awareness, or even expectation, of potential failure based on experience. The characters live so lightly on the planet – there’s only a frail sense of home, of place, of community (it’s there, for example, in the kitchen) – but it’s like you can’t put roots down in this shallow soil: at any minute your foundations can fall away. [Spoilers] Consider Sweeny’s reaction to the death of his much loved dog: even grief seems presumptuous. This perspective underpins M’s capably evoked outlook. It reminds me of a documentary I saw about Temple Grandin, titled, pertinently, ‘The woman who thinks like a cow.’ Grandin’s particular autistic perception has seen her work professionally to advise cattle industries such as abattoirs on how to better manage livestock. She walked through their environments and pointed out how they’d react to stimuli. A key insight was this sense of being prey, not predator – constantly scanning the world for threats. It makes sense that ‘M’s approach to romance is so tentative – and then so rash. He doesn’t have the confidence in/experience of the stability required for patiently developing a relationship, a future plan – instead he just leaps at this chance, taking a punt. Like prey he is cautious until he stampedes.
So with all this bovine praise, why dismiss the minotaur aspect? Because I want more than gritty, or even poignant, realism from my gods and demigods. Not even ‘more’ – it’s not as if ‘M’ is an undeveloped character – quite the opposite – but different. If you’re going to attempt a character who is non-human (and what is more definitively human than mortality?), then I don’t want them to essentially be … human. Again, I would have probably just enjoyed this as a short story concept – bringing out some interesting parallels with this lost soul roaming the earth for generation after generation, and the (ba-dum, ba-dum) human condition. But in developing M into a whole novel, I think the mythical aspect was sold short. Give me something legendary, something that says this guy is not just like me – he’s immortal for goodness sake. Sure have similarities, resonances, they don’t have to be utterly alien and incomprehensible, but if adding a legend, you need something legendary, something definitively non-human. It’s rare that people pull this off, and SF and fantasy is strewn with disappointments of grandly titled wizards, ancient races, and, indeed, gods, goddesses and even aliens who turn out to just be standard humans with incidentally different accessories. As opposed to a triumphs like Tolkien’s Gandalf and Wolfe’s Sir Able, or Banks’ genuinely alternative ‘Dwellers’.
Gaiman might disagree – he relishes humanised deity (although, now I think of it, not in Christianity, which is utterly centred on the incarnation), and this oxymoronic concept is enticingly captured in the title of the book. How many people would pause in the book store to leaf through, “Barry takes a cigarette break,” or even, “Barry the wheelchair guy takes a cigarette break”? Even if it was essentially the same book – which I contend it could be, the magic realism is incidental (or, more pejoratively, gratuitous). The minotaur thing is the hook for a lot of readers – perhaps me included. As is Gaiman’s recommendation – his praise also commercially enhances the cover of Wolfe’s aforementioned ‘The Knight’, a fabulous mythic book. And does the minotaur bit detract – can’t I savour the fallen god element alongside the human story? Not really – and it’s not as if Steinbeck needed it.